Relative Absorbency of Mercerized and Unmercerized Yarns

Dear Madelyn,

In a recent Ask Madelyn, you discussed the wet finishing of the Ozark Quilter Towels (Handwoven, March/April 2016, pp. 30-32).

Can one substitute mercerized cotton for unmercerized cotton in weaving the Ozark Towels, with the intent of eliminating the ironing of towels when still damp? I know that the initial shrinkage will change in the first step of wet finishing, requiring a recalculation of amount of yarn to be used. Isn’t mercerized cotton as absorbent of water when using it to dry dinnerware? I’d like to make these towels using mercerized cotton if possible.

Thank you,


Hi Judith!

I have received several similar questions as a result of the column on the Ozark towels. If you were to examine all the towel projects in Handwoven (and there are many; towels are close to the most favorite, if not the most favorite item for handweavers to make), you’d find they are almost all woven in either 8/2 unmercerized cotton, 22/2 cottolin (60% cotton/ 40% linen but about the same size as 8/2 cotton), or 10/2 pearl (mercerized) cotton. Towels woven in 8/2 unmerceized cotton and cottolin towels are very similar in their ability to absorb water (the task a towel is supposed to do). The shinier finish on 10/2 pearl cotton caused by the chemical process of mercerization does reduce that yarn’s absorbency. Towels woven in mercerized cottons are never as absorbent as those woven in unmercerized cotton; however, with repeated washings their absorbency increases.

Absorbency: towel

To answer your specific question, I don’t think leaving out ironing will make all that much difference, although I don’t iron mine. (After wiping the first few dishes, the ironed surface is likely to be disturbed.) In spite of their being less absorbent, however, I happily use towels woven in 10/2 pearl cotton. I especially like the surface created with deflected doubleweave for towels; the structure forces the yarns to bend, opening up the plies (as well as opening little spaces between the layers) to aid absorbency. I’m including a photo that I hope sort of shows that texture.

I think you can happily weave the Ozark Quilter towels in pearl cotton and enjoy using them. (And as you point out, they will not shrink as much as towels in 8/2 cotton, but I’d just go with the same woven width and length and produce a slightly larger towel.)


If you have a weaving question we would love to hear from you! Please email Madelyn! Pictured: Starry Sky Placemats by Judit Ozoray Handwoven Sept/Oct 2016

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