Choosing Bath and Hand Towels
by BRIDGET DONAHUE
Traditional housekeepers sought bath and hand towels and washcloths able to take hot water and dryer temperatures, ordinary detergents, and, if needed, chlorine bleach. This is because you want to be able to sanitize them if necessary and to be able to remove stains and soils wiped off the skin. You will search long and hard before you find any today that have care labels permitting such vigorous laundering. But I find that towels can quite often be laundered vigorously despite care label instructions to the contrary.
Your towels should always be colorfast. Don’t waste your time or your money buying towels with care labels that say, “Wash separately,” or “Wash with like colors.” This is a care instruction that makes no sense for towels. But care instructions to wash separately for the first two or three launderings are not objectionable, as this indicates that the towels are really colorfast but may hold some excess dye that will readily and permanently wash out.
Although colored towels are lovely, it is not a bad idea to stock some plain white towels as well. White towels, usually, can take the most vigorous laundering with hot water, strong detergents, and chlorine bleach; thus they are not hard to keep looking good. Not only are they attractive in the bath, you will find many uses for them outside the bath such as laying wet clothes on them to dry, rolling wet clothes in them, and for hot and cold compresses; everyone finds further uses special to their own homes.
As for thickness, half the members of my own family hate thick towels, insisting that they make it hard to get behind the ears or between toes. They like old towels worn to thinness or inexpensive thin, new towels. The others insist on thick towels for their luxurious softness and ability to hold more moisture. Most towels will shrink a little; towels of lower quality may shrink greatly, often becoming misshapen in the process.
So what are good choices for your towels?
Turkish towels or cotton terrycloth towels, which were introduced in the late nineteenth century, are wonderfully soft and absorbent for the bath. And nothing beats cotton terrycloth washcloths, which mildly abrade the skin to remove soil, oil, and dead cells. Although cotton terry towels are less absorbent than linen, and, when dry, initially resist moisture, the loops on the face of terry towels help them to pick up more moisture and to hold more of it than other towels. The most absorbent towels have the most pile loops, which should be long and not too tightly twisted. When the loops are cropped to form velour terry, the cloth feels velvety and shows prints well but is much less absorbent. Terry towels with cotton pile and a polyester back will still be fairly absorbent, since most of the drying that your towels do is with the pile. (Polyester in the back adds strength and durability.) A tight, balanced weave, preferably a twill, is desirable. But the thread count of the towel is less important in determining absorbency than the weight of the towel; heavier towels are more absorbent.
Look for dense, thick, firm towels with high pile, even selvage edges, and small, even hem stitches. Hold terrycloth towels up to the light to check the quality of the underlying weave. Feel it for softness and resilience. Avoid towels that lack that cottony, dry, terrycloth feeling and instead have a certain (seductively pleasant) silky or smooth feel. In my experience, the latter are not very absorbent until they have received years of wear and grown more cottony.
Although you see extralong-staple Egyptian and Pima cotton towels praised, I prefer terrycloth towels made of Upland cotton, which seem to me more absorbent and softer. Towels of extralong-staple cotton, however, grow softer and more absorbent as they age. Most people in this country would never exchange the great comfort, absorbency, and reasonable prices of terrycloth towels for old-fashioned linen bath towels. These lacked a pile and were made in a variety of weaves., such as huck, honeycomb, or waffle weave. Linen bath towels vied with terrycloth through the opening decades of the twentieth century and are still favored in some places in Europe. They are often quite large but quickly grow damp and soaked and can chill you in a cold bathroom; they wrinkle readily. They can be quite beautiful, especially those with long, silky fringes. But although people look more elegant wrapped in a the folds of fine, fringed linen fabric after a bath, people wrapped in terry towels are warmer and more comfy. If you would like to try this type of linen bath towel, the most sensible and the warmest have thick spongy weaves such as waffle weave and natural colors–creams, tans, and off-whites. The most beautiful are in jacquard or dobby weaves. You may be able to find such nonterry bath towels in cottons as well.
Some companies make linen terrycloth towels, often marketing them especially for men. These towels are invigoratingly scratchy and quite absorbent, especially after a couple of washes, but the ones I have seen are not nearly so pretty as cotton terrycloth.
Hand towels of linen are traditional. They come in beautiful damask weaves or huck, crash, honeycomb, or waffle weaves. Linen towels are absorbent and durable, do not yellow or turn gray, and can take strong laundering. Cotton terry is more absorbent than other types of cotton hand towels, but all are good. Guest hand towels often are delicate and elegant, with fringe, embroidery, cutwork, or lace. These require careful ironing to look good. Store six sets of towels per person plus one or more sets for guests.
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