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What is the Difference between Mercerised and Non-Mercerised Cotton?

  • 10 min read
https://threadcollective.com.au/collections/cotton-yarn
Different kinds of cotton yarns at Thread Collective

Cotton, a versatile and widely used natural fibre, can undergo various treatments to enhance its properties for different applications. One such treatment is mercerisation, which imparts specific characteristics to cotton fibres. This article explores the differences between mercerised and non-mercerised cotton, shedding light on their respective features and applications.

History of Mercerisation

John Mercer, a skilled English dye and fabric chemist, started his journey in dyeing at sixteen. He set up a small lab at home, experimenting with colours and mixtures. After a successful dyeing shop venture, Mercer became an apprentice at a print shop. Unfortunately, a spiteful foreman limited his experience, leading him to embrace weaving.

Maurice Brassard 8/4 mercerised cotton yarns
Maurice Brassard 8/4 mercerised cotton yarns

Rekindling his passion for dyeing and chemistry, Mercer joined the Fort brothers in 1818, excelling as a colour chemist. In 1848, the partnership dissolved, giving Mercer the time and resources to explore textile processing. His groundbreaking experiment in 1850, called mercerisation, involved treating cotton with chemicals, making it stronger, resistant to shrinking, and imbuing it with a lustrous appearance.

Although Mercer discovered the process in 1844, it went unnoticed for around forty years. In 1890, Horace Lowe's patent highlighted the application of Mercer's caustic soda process, bringing overnight success and revolutionising the cotton industry with the famous mercerised cotton we know today.

Why Do We Mercerise Cotton?

Cotton is mercerised to enhance its qualities and make it more suitable for various applications. Here are the primary reasons why we mercerise cotton:

  1. Increased Durability: Mercerisation strengthens cotton fibres, enhancing the fabric's overall durability. This is particularly valuable for textiles that must withstand wear and tear, like clothing and home textiles.
  2. Shrink Resistance: Mercerised cotton is less prone to shrinking when exposed to washing and drying. This makes mercerised cotton garments more stable in size, providing better long-term fit and reducing the risk of distortion.
  3. Enhanced Dyeability: Mercerisation improves the ability of cotton fibres to absorb and retain dye. This results in brighter and more vibrant colours, making mercerised cotton a preferred choice for dyed textiles. The enhanced dyeability contributes to a more attractive and long-lasting appearance.
  4. Lustrous Sheen: One of the distinctive features of mercerised cotton is its lustrous or shiny appearance. The treatment process alters the surface of the cotton fibres, creating a smooth and reflective quality. This sheen adds a luxurious and aesthetic appeal to textiles, making them visually appealing.
  5. Dimensional Stability: Mercerisation imparts dimensional stability to cotton fabrics, ensuring that they maintain their shape and structure over time. This is particularly important for garments and textiles that require consistent sizing and appearance.
  6. Reduced Lint: Mercerisation can contribute to lint reduction on the surface of cotton fabrics. This quality is desirable for textiles like bed linens and towels, where lint can be a nuisance.

Mercerising cotton enhances its strength, shrink resistance, dyeability, lustre, absorbency, and dimensional stability and reduces lint. These improvements make mercerised cotton a preferred choice for a wide range of high-quality textiles in the fashion, home, and industrial sectors.

Mercerised Cotton and Non-Mercerised Cotton: Which Should I Choose?

Mercerised cotton is a type of cotton that has been treated with a caustic soda solution to improve its properties. This treatment gives the cotton a greater affinity for dyes, allowing it to absorb colours more evenly and vividly than unmercerised cotton. Mercerised cotton also has improved strength and a lustrous appearance, making it ideal for projects that require durability and a polished finish.

Maurice Brassard 8/8 unmercerised cotton yarns
Maurice Brassard 8/8 unmercerised cotton yarns

On the other hand, unmercerised cotton has yet to undergo this treatment and retains a softer, more muted texture. While it may not have the same lustre and strength as mercerised cotton, unmercerised cotton is preferred for its natural feel and breathability.

Let's dig deeper into the different characteristics, as well as the pros and cons, of mercerised cotton and non-mercerised cotton.

Pros and Cons of Mercerised Cotton

Mercerisation involves treating cotton fibres with a caustic soda solution followed by neutralisation with an acid. This process causes the fibres to swell, resulting in several notable changes. Mercerised cotton offers several advantages, making it a popular choice in the textile industry. However, like any material, it also has its drawbacks.

Advantages of Mercerised Cotton

1. Lustre:

  • Mercerised cotton boasts a higher sheen or lustre compared to its non-mercerised counterpart. The enhanced shine gives fabrics a luxurious appearance, making them ideal for high-end clothing and textiles.

2. Strength:

  • The mercerisation process significantly increases the strength of cotton fibres. This enhanced durability makes mercerised cotton well-suited for products requiring longevity and resilience.

3. Colour Absorption:

  • Mercerised cotton exhibits superior colour absorption capabilities. The fibres absorb and retain dyes more efficiently, producing vibrant and long-lasting colours. This makes it a preferred choice for fabrics where colour vibrancy is crucial.

4. Smoothness:

  • Mercerised cotton fibres become smoother due to the treatment, contributing to a softer feel in the fabric. The increased smoothness enhances the overall tactile experience.

Disadvantages of Mercerised Cotton

1. Cost:

    • The mercerisation process adds to the production cost of cotton. As a result, mercerised cotton products may be more expensive than their non-mercerised counterparts.

2. Environmental Impact:

    • The mercerisation process involves the use of chemicals, including caustic soda. If it is not managed properly, the environmental impact of these chemicals can be a concern. Sustainable and eco-friendly practices are increasingly important in today's textile industry.

3. Energy Consumption:

    • Mercerisation requires energy-intensive treatments, contributing to higher energy consumption during production than non-mercerised cotton.

4. Less Natural Appearance:

    • Some consumers prefer the natural and matte appearance of non-mercerised cotton. Mercerised cotton's increased lustre may not appeal to those who appreciate a more organic or rustic look.

5. Limited Breathability:

    • While mercerised cotton is generally breathable, the smoother texture may affect its breathability compared to non-mercerised cotton, which has a more open and porous structure.

6. Reduced Absorbency:

  • Cotton is known for its absorbent nature, but mercerisation can reduce this quality. This makes mercerised cotton less suitable for products like towels.

Pros and Cons of Non-Mercerised Cotton

Non-mercerised cotton, in its natural state without undergoing the process of mercerisation, has its advantages and disadvantages. The choice between mercerised and non-mercerised cotton ultimately depends on various factors such as intended use, desired aesthetics, cost, and sustainability considerations.

Advantages of Non-Mercerised Cotton

1. Natural Appearance:

    • Non-mercerised cotton retains its natural, matte appearance. This can appeal to those who prefer a more organic and rustic look in their textiles.

2. Softer Feel:

    • Some individuals find non-mercerised cotton to have a softer and more natural feel than mercerised cotton. This makes it a comfortable choice for various everyday fabrics.

3. Breathability:

    • Non-mercerised cotton tends to be more breathable than mercerised cotton. The untreated fibres maintain a more open and porous structure, promoting airflow and comfort.

4. Lower Production Cost:

    • Since non-mercerised cotton doesn't undergo the additional chemical and energy-intensive mercerisation process, it generally has a lower production cost. This can result in more affordable end products.

5. Eco-Friendly Potential:

    • In some cases, non-mercerised cotton may be considered more environmentally friendly than mercerised cotton due to the absence of specific chemical treatments. This can align with sustainable and eco-conscious consumer choices.

6. Increased Absorbency of Moisture:

  • Though less absorptive of colour than mercerised cotton, non-mercerised cotton is more absorbent of moisture, making it the more ideal choice for items such as towels.

Disadvantages of Non-Mercerised Cotton

1. Reduced Lustre:

    • Non-mercerised cotton lacks the enhanced lustre achieved through mercerisation. For applications where a shiny appearance is desired, non-mercerised cotton may not be the ideal choice.

2. Lower Strength:

    • While still strong, non-mercerised cotton may not exhibit the same level of strength as mercerised cotton. This can impact the fabric's durability and longevity, especially in high-wear situations.

3. Colour Fading:

    • Non-mercerised cotton may absorb dyes less uniformly, leading to a slightly muted or faded appearance over time. This can affect the vibrancy and longevity of colours in the fabric.

4. Limited Application in High-End Textiles:

    • Non-mercerised cotton is generally less common in high-end textiles and luxury products, where a smoother, more lustrous finish is preferred. Mercerised cotton is often chosen for such applications.

5. Potentially More Shrinkage:

    • Non-mercerised cotton may experience more shrinkage than mercerised cotton during washing. This can be a consideration when sizing and fitting are crucial.

What Type of Projects Use Mercerised Cotton?

Mercerised cotton, with its enhanced properties and luxurious finish, is a sought-after material in a variety of projects across multiple industries. The unique characteristics bestowed upon cotton through the mercerisation process make it a preferred choice for several applications, showcasing its versatility and desirability.

1. High-Quality Clothing:

    • Mercerised cotton's increased lustre, improved strength, and smooth texture make it an excellent choice for high-quality clothing. The enhanced sheen adds a touch of elegance, making garments not only visually appealing but also durable and comfortable. Mercerised cotton clothing is often found in upscale fashion items such as shirts, blouses, dresses, and formal wear.

2. Bed Linens and Sheets:

    • The luxurious qualities of mercerised cotton make it particularly well-suited for bed linens and sheets. The smooth and soft texture created during the mercerisation process enhances the comfort of these textiles. Additionally, the fabric's durability ensures that bed linens made from mercerised cotton maintain their quality and appearance even after numerous washes. This application is popular in high-end bedding collections, providing a touch of luxury to bedrooms.

3. Fine Textiles and Luxury Fabrics:

    • Mercerised cotton's ability to absorb and retain vibrant colours and smooth finish positions it as a preferred choice for fine textiles and luxury fabrics. From draperies and curtains to upholstery and decorative items, mercerised cotton elevates the aesthetic appeal of these products. The strength and durability of the fabric contribute to the longevity of these textiles, making them suitable for sophisticated and upscale environments.

4. Designer and Boutique Collections:

    • Mercerised cotton often plays a pivotal role in designer and boutique collections. Fashion designers appreciate its versatility and the ability to create garments that not only look luxurious but also feel exquisite against the skin. Mercerised cotton can be seamlessly integrated into designer lines, contributing to the clothing's overall quality and perceived value.

5. Specialised Apparel:

    • Beyond general high-quality clothing, mercerised cotton is employed to create specialised apparel. This includes sportswear, leisurewear, and undergarments, where the combination of comfort, strength, and a refined appearance is crucial. The fabric's characteristics make it suitable for a range of activities, ensuring both style and functionality.

6. Textile Art and Craft Projects:

  • Artists and craft enthusiasts also find merit in mercerised cotton for their projects. The yarns, and subsequently, the fabric's enhanced colour absorption, allows for vibrant and long-lasting hues, making it a favourite for weaving, quilting, embroidery, and other textile arts. The smooth surface facilitates intricate detailing and ensures a polished final product.

Mercerised cotton's applications extend across various projects where a balance of aesthetic appeal, durability, and comfort is paramount. From the realms of high-end fashion and luxurious bedding to specialised apparel and artistic endeavours, mercerised cotton continues to be a versatile and favoured material, contributing to the creation of refined and enduring products. Its presence in these diverse projects highlights the enduring significance of mercerised cotton in the world of textiles and design.

What Type of Projects Use Non-Mercerised Cotton?

Non-mercerised cotton, appreciated for its natural appeal and soft texture, finds widespread use in various projects that prioritise comfort, versatility, and a more laid-back aesthetic. This untreated version of cotton has distinct qualities that make it more suitable for certain applications, ranging from everyday wear to various casual and practical items.

1. Casual Wear:

    • Non-mercerised cotton shines in the realm of casual wear. T-shirts, casual shirts, and comfortable loungewear often utilise non-mercerised cotton due to its softness and breathability. The fabric's more natural appearance aligns well with the relaxed and informal style associated with casual clothing.

2. Everyday Fabrics:

    • Non-mercerised cotton serves as the foundation for a wide range of everyday fabrics. From denim for jeans to essential cotton blends, non-mercerised cotton is chosen for its versatility and suitability for daily use. It's a common choice for creating highly durable fabrics that are easy to care for and comfortable for everyday activities.

3. Comfortable Bedding:

    • Non-mercerised cotton is frequently used to produce everyday bedding items such as sheets, pillowcases, and duvet covers. The softer, more natural feel of non-mercerised cotton contributes to a cozy and inviting sleeping environment.

4. Children's Clothing and Apparel:

    • The soft and natural feel of non-mercerised cotton makes it an excellent choice for children's clothing. Its gentle touch on the skin and breathability are vital factors, ensuring comfort for youngsters in various everyday activities.

5. Everyday Home Textiles:

    • Non-mercerised cotton is commonly used in everyday home textiles like towels and washcloths. The absorbent nature of the fabric, coupled with its softer feel, makes it a practical choice for daily use in bathrooms and kitchens.

6. Craft and DIY Projects:

    • Non-mercerised cotton is often a top pick for crafters and DIY enthusiasts. Its natural appearance and softer texture make it ideal for quilting, sewing, and other textile-based projects where a more relaxed and approachable feel is desired.

Non-mercerised cotton's appeal lies in its versatility and comfort, making it a staple in the world of casual wear, everyday fabrics, and items where a softer, more natural feel is preferred. Whether in comfortable clothing, home textiles, or craft projects, non-mercerised cotton remains a reliable choice for those seeking a blend of practicality and comfort in their daily lives. Its usage in these diverse projects underscores its enduring significance as a go-to material for various applications.

A Closer Look at Mercerised and Non-Mercerised Cotton Yarns

A picture is worth a thousand words, and visual examples can provide invaluable insights when it comes to understanding the disparities between mercerised and non-mercerised cotton yarns. Let's compare these two types of cotton yarns side-by-side to highlight their distinct physical characteristics.

A side by side comparison of non-mercerised and mercerised cotton yarns | Thread Collective Australia
Top: Non-mercerised cotton yarns | Bottom: Mercerised cotton yarns

These side-by-side images offer a representation of the key visual differences between mercerised and non-mercerised cotton yarns to aid in recognizing and appreciating the distinct visual qualities of each type of cotton yarn, providing a clearer understanding for enthusiasts and industry professionals alike.

Shop Mercerised and Non-Mercerised Cotton Yarns in Australia

Whether you're drawn to the luxurious sheen of mercerised cotton or the natural charm of non-mercerised varieties, Thread Collective offers a diverse range to suit every artistic vision. We have cotton yarns from Venne, Maurice Brassard, Ashford, and many more brands from all over the world. Get ready to upgrade your crafting experience with yarns embodying tradition and innovation. Visit our online store today and discover the perfect threads to weave your unique stories.

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