During the mid-to-late 1800s there were a number of important advances in thetextiles industry: the inventions of the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny,the water frame spinner, and the mechanical loom all helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. However, none of these inventions would have had as greatan impact as they did without similar advances in the textiles themselves--for example, the development of new materials and methods for processing thesematerials. One of the most important contributors to this field was John Mercer, the father of textile chemistry.
Mercer grew up in Lancashire, England--an area that would soon become the hubof the English textile industry. He first entered that industry as a boy, working as a bobbin-winder and, later, as a weaver. At the age of sixteen he became drawn to the art of dyeing. He set up a small dye laboratory in the Mercer home, and there experimented with new mixtures and colors. He became quiteskilled at the manufacture of dyes, and that year he entered into partnership with an investor to open a dyeing shop. Their business, though small, was quite successful, and Mercer was only drawn away by an offer to become an apprentice at a print shop in nearby Oakenshaw. His time there was, unfortunately, somewhat wasted: he was prevented by a spiteful foreman from gaining any real experience, and after a year he was relieved of his apprenticeship.
Mercer spent several years as a simple weaver before once again becoming a dyer. His return to the profession was sparked by an interest in chemistry. Inhis home laboratory he experimented with a number of chemicals, eventually producing a new orange dye that (unlike previous dyes) was ideal for calico-printing. In 1818 he was once again employed by the Fort brothers (who had ownedthe Oakenshaw print shop) as a color chemist; there he invented a number ofdyes of yellow, orange, and indigo. He was made a partner in 1825.
While his employ with the Fort brothers was profitable, it took away a greatdeal of Mercer's free time--time that he had previously spent in his laboratory developing new chemicals for textile processing. The partnership was dissolved in 1848 and, at the age of fifty-seven, Mercer finally had both the timeand financial resources to pursue the research that had been put off.
His first experiment turned out to be his most important. For years he had wondered about the effect upon cotton fabric of certain sodas, acids, and chlorides. He soon found that, when treated with these caustic chemicals, the material would become thicker and shorter; this made the cotton stronger, shrink-resistant, and more easily dyed. It also imparted to the material a lustroussheen that became highly valued by textile manufacturers. Mercer called his chemical process mercerization and patented it in 1850.
Mercer himself was most interested in how mercerization aided the dyeing process. When chemically treated, the cotton fibers would swell, becoming more absorbent; mercerized fabrics require about thirty percent less dye than untreated fabrics. It soon became apparent, however, that mercerization could be applied to many other materials, including parchment and woolen fabric. Today,mercerization is still an important part of the cotton finishing process.
Mercer was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died in 1866 of a prolongedillness, brought about by falling into a reservoir of cold water.