Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why bed sheets used to be smooth and silky (and why they aren't today)

I'm looking for new king-size sheets for my new bed and I'm not having much luck... Seems like every time I get cotton sheets, all I can find are these linty, wrinkly, rough ones, regardless of the thread count. Now, I know when I was younger my mom would pick up vintage bed sheets from flea markets and they were always super smooth and cool to the touch (not to mention super durable - I have a mint green pillow case from the '70s that I still use today!)

So doing some internet sleuthing, I stumbled upon an review where a person who's had the same experience as me explains that those old sheets owe their silkiness to an industrial process called mercerization. Take it away, Wikipedia:

Mercerisation is a treatment for cotton fabric and thread that gives fabric a lustrous appearance. [...]

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.


Today 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 also increases affinity to lint. Cotton with long staple fibre lengths responds best to mercerisation. Mercerised thread is commonly used to produce fine crochet.

The reviewer continues:

Sheets and pillowcases were marketed as mercerized and it was included on the label. Mercerization is a process of washing the fabric or thread under tension (to prevent shrinkage) with sodium hydroxide and an acid neutralizer which not only gives it a smooth luster and increases strength but reduces lint, improves mildew resistance and increases affinity for dye so it won't fade or bleed. In the 70's, we could buy sheets and pillowcases which were also "Pre-shrunk," "Cotton blend" and "no wrinkle, no iron."

You can still find vintage cotton/poly sheets in unopened, good condition on Ebay and Etsy. Hard to find, but totally worth the search!


sally said...

I've often wondered why the current sheets we buy weren't as nice as the ones we grew up on. Now I know. It all makes a lot more sense now. Now it's time to search ebay.

Carolyn said...

wow- my parents definitely had 2 of the sheet patterns you have posted- I think that they had the red/rust version of the blue/white print @ the top and the big green/daisy print.

Just a warning before you rush out and buy a bunch of vintage sheets, it's very likely that vintage fitted base sheets won't fit today's thicker pillow top mattresses. I actually need to invest in a low-profile boxspring so I can show more of my vintage headboard.

MoonDoggie said...

Aaaah I've often wondered this myself - thanks for the information. But why don't they mercerise the sheets today then? Is it considered 'too expensive'?

Eartha Kitsch said...

Aha! So that's why! I always thought that maybe it was my nostalgic memory - kind of like how I am absolutely convinced that Hershey bars used to be bigger.

I'm glad that Carolyn mentioned that about thicker mattresses these days. That's a good thing to consider.
I have those striped pillowcases shown in your photo and they are sooooo smooth and stay cooler longer in the Summer.

Thanks for the info!

Jenn Ski said...

I think they stopped making cotton/poly sheets because everyone wanted 100% cotton. By the 80's polyester was a big no no.

julia wheeler said...

omg i JUST slept in my aunt and uncle's guest room last weekend on the softest vintage sheets and it made me wonder the SAME thing! thanks for posting this tid bit!

Vinay Kumar said...

Lovely Bed Sheets!
Everything about that room is perfect!