The process was devised in 1844 by John Mercer of Great Harwood, Lancashire, England, who treated cotton fibres with sodium hydroxide. The treatment caused the fibres to swell, which in Mercer's version of the process shrank the overall fabric size and made it stronger and easier to dye. The process did not become popular, however, until H. A. Lowe improved it into its modern form in 1890. By holding the cotton during treatment to prevent it from shrinking, Lowe found that the fibre gained a lustrous appearance.
Mercerisation alters the chemical structure of the cotton fibre. The structure of the fibre inter-converts from alpha-cellulose to a thermodynamically more favourable beta-cellulose polymorph. Mercerising results in the swelling of the cell wall of the cotton fibre. This causes increase in the surface area and reflectance, and gives the fibre a softer feel. An optional last step in the process is passing the thread over an open flame; this incinerates stray fibers, improving the fabric's appearance. This is known as "gassing the thread" due to the gas burner that is typically used.
The modern production method for mercerised cotton, also known as "pearl" or "pearle" cotton, gives cotton thread (or cotton-covered thread with a polyester core) a sodium hydroxide bath that is then neutralized with an acid bath. This treatment increases lustre, strength, affinity to dye, resistance to mildew, but, on the other hand, increases its affinity to lint.
- J. Gordon Cook (1984). Handbook of Textile Fibres: Volume I: Natural Fibres. Woodhead. p. 68. ISBN 1-85573-484-2.
- Beaudet, Tom (1999). "What is Mercerized cotton?". FiberArts.org. Retrieved 2007-01-03.
- Textile Technology: Cotton/Kenaf Fabrics: a Viable Natural Fabric, P. Bel-Berger, et al. Journal of Cotton Science, 3:60–70 (1999). "Cotton/kenaf fabrics can be further improved in softness and "hand" (the feel of textiles when handled). The effects of different fabric treatments such as enzymes, bleaching, and mercerization were compared and measured for softness of hand. Two types of fabrics were treated, a lightweight plain weave and a heavyweight twill. Mercerization dramatically improved the softness and hand for both fabrics."
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