How to Choose Absorbent Towels

Dear Home-Ec 101,
I have a question about towels. Is there any way to tell when you buy a bath towel (or any towel for that matter) if it will be absorbent? I’ve purchased many 100% cotton towels over the years. Some are absorbent and others repel water as badly as those hideous 100% polyester napkins you get at certain restaurants. The worst bath towels I ever bought were two 100% cotton, organic, unbleached towels I purchased from an expensive well-known “natural” products website. Would love to know if there’s any special trick to always finding the perfect towel.
Signed,
Damp on the Danford

how to choose towels

Heather says:

You were totally on the right track choosing unbleached towels. I thought it was an old wives tale that white towels are more absorbent than colored, but there seems to be truth to that, at least according to The International Society Of Hospitality Purchasers (ISHP). When you think about it, those guys are going to be serious about the quality of their bath linens.

Check out this video; it is an excellent aid to visualizing the construction of a towel.

There are two main parts to your towel, the base weave and the pile.  The pile refers to the loops of the towel. The label on some towels may refer to 100% cotton pile or loops, if this is indicated, assume that the base weave contains polyester. In the video above loops are only created on one side of the fabric, in a towel the loops are on both sides.

The number of loops, the length of the loops, the thickness or coarseness of the yarn used,  and how tightly the loops are packed together all affect the absorbency of your towels. In the video, you’ll notice that not every pass through the warp yarns is turned into loops, in towels this gives the loops a bit of room to expand, but this is only helpful to a point.  The length of the individual loops increases the surface area of your towel, more surface area equals more absorbency. Another variable is the thickness of the yarn, thicker yarn means fewer loops per square inch and consequently less surface area for water absorption; many thin loops can out absorb fewer thick loops in the same square of fabric.

So when choosing a towel you want to look for a nice deep pile created with thin yarns. Make sense?

How do you know if your towel has a deep pile and thin yarn?

There is a standard of measurement for fabric called GSM or grams per square meter. The higher the number, the more material has gone into each square of fabric. Typically a GSM over 500 is a good indication of a quality towel.

Keep in mind that the heavier and more absorbent your towels are the more energy or time it’s going to take to dry when laundering.

What’s in a name?

Egyptian, Pima, Combed or Carded, what does it matter?

Egyptian cotton is grown -wait for it- in Egypt. Pima cotton is grown in the southern United States. Both strains of cotton are prized for their longer fibers.  The long thin fibers of Egyptian, Pima, and Turkish cottons can be made into thinner yarns than other types of cotton. Be aware that in the US labeling laws only require that 10% of the cotton be Egyptian to be labelled Egyptian Cotton. If you want to be sure you’re getting 100% Egyptian cotton, the label must say 100% Egyptian Cotton.

Combed cotton is more expensive, but has fewer short fibers than carded cotton, this has more of an effect on the durability and propensity for pilling than on the absorbency of your towels.

I’ve been told that towels made from Egyptian or Pima cotton tend to take longer to break in before they perform as desired, but I have no personal experience to evaluate that statement.

What about velour towels?

bathroom cleaning

Tips to keep your bathroom squeaky clean!

Velour towels are manufactured almost exactly like terry cloth towels, only they are sheared on one side. Velour is extremely soft, but it is significantly less absorbent than its terry cloth counterpart.

On a final note, never use fabric softener with your towels. The residue that gives the fabric a nice feel will also make your towels less absorbent.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

 



28 Comments

  1. LA on February 22, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    What is the difference between or best material for beach towels? Cotton, Viscose/Rayon or a blend of the two? Pros/Cons?

    • Heather Solos on February 23, 2017 at 8:52 am

      A beach towel has a different use than a towel you use in your home. You want the beach towel to dry you off, but you also want the towel itself to dry quickly. A blend will be less absorbent but allow for quicker drying.

  2. roxanne on December 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Soak you pima cotton towels in cold water for a minimum of 24 hours to allow the cotton to expand then was in about a tablespoon of fabric soap and dry. They will come out soft and absorbent. I’m a weaver and this works for all the towels I weave.

  3. Shirley Watson on August 13, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Years ago we had flour sack towels for drying dishes and they got your dishes dry, no water left on them, now when you get 100 percent cotton dish towels they tend to leave some moisture on your dishes. I need the white ones, how do I pick the ones I need? Thanks, Shirley

    • Heather Solos on August 14, 2013 at 7:49 am

      There is a chance there is some residue from whatever the cotton towels were treated with after manufacturing to prevent pest infestation during storage. Try stripping them as you would with detergent build up. Has anything else changed? Did you add a water softener, change detergents, get a different washing machine, etc. There is a chance it’s not the towels and is another factor.

  4. guest on May 18, 2012 at 10:15 am

    The post was very informative and appreciated.  I happened to come on it, however, while I was trying to figure out how to buy very absorbent kitchen towels.  I can usually ‘feel’ the difference in the store on bath and hand towels, but I simply cannot find quality absorbent kitchen towels.  Any suggestions?

    • marti on March 13, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Just also happened upon this site since we recently visited friends and the new towels just did not dry the body! Sorry, still not sure about why those towels did not but did find a few interesting thoughts here. Her towels were striped and perhaps velour on one side and maybe that is why they did not dry, but neither side dried my husband or me!

      @guest from May 18, 2012: I think the best absorbent kitchen towels are from Crate & Barrel.

    • CP on November 9, 2013 at 11:25 pm

      I use flat diapers as kitchen towels. Extremely absorbent!

  5. Emily on May 8, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    that's so funny to end this. My mom always says that fabric softener is why her towels are so absorbant. Hers are heavenly and I'm pretty sure that they're also fairly cheap. I've used fabric softener before and ended up with similarly wonderful towels, but I wash cloth diapers (and you cannot get softener on them), so I just don't use softener at all because I don't want residue on my diapers. Doesn't make a lick of sense why one makes it more absorbant and the other thing less absorbant.. but I can't figure out any other reason her towels are so awesomely absorbant – regardless of where she's lived/the type of water/etc.

  6. Jen@Dear Mommy Brain on April 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    Restoration Hardware has the most amazing Turkish cotton towels. They aren't those skimpy hotel-sized towels either. Had I not had an employee discount, I may have never forked over that much cash for towels, however, they are worth every penny.

  7. […] time. If you are in the market for new bath towels be sure to read Heather’s whole article, How to Choose Absorbent Towels. It’s just the right […]

  8. Tracie on April 27, 2011 at 9:39 am

    So no fabric softener and the towels will be soft?

    • HeatherSolos on April 27, 2011 at 9:48 am

      This question will get a full post.
      The short version is that it depends on your water quality, how you dry them, and if you're using the proper amount of detergent.

  9. Nancy on April 26, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    Thank you for all this info!!! It explains why my husband hates one of the darker colored towels I bought but loves the lighter colored one, even though they are from the exact same line. I'm wondering about the GSM…a quick search of various towels online doesn't show this information in the details of the product info.

    It's sort of a drag one has to break-in towels. Is gumming the same as sizing?

    I'll be off to the store tomorrow to start feeling up the towels:)
    My recent post Fun- Out-of-the-Ordinary and Practical Gifts for High School Graduates

    • HeatherSolos on April 26, 2011 at 8:46 pm

      If you look at mostly only venues, Amazon, Overstock, etc you can see the GSM of towels. Personally, I'd make a cheat sheet of the brands w/ the listed weights and check them out at a department store the next time I happened to be in the area. I'd then buy from the whichever venue had the best price. I think after familiarizing myself a few times with GSM and seeing what that felt like in person, I'd have a better idea of what I was looking for. Does that make sense?

  10. HeatherSolos on April 26, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    When I receive email notifications they arrive with no context, meaning I can't tell if a comment is in response to me or another commenter. I think I broke some kind of land speed record racing up the stairs to double check the post and make sure I hadn't stuck my foot in my mouth big time.

  11. Keter Magick on April 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    The best set of towels I have ever owned is the one I have now. I bought them at Stein Mart (a high-end closeout store) eleven years ago, and they weren't cheap. Because they were so expensive, I worried their dark blue would fade. Then I worried about the woven band shrinking. And lastly I worried because the first few times I used them, they didn't absorb well (sizing). Eleven years later, they retain their original proportions, haven't faded appreciably, and they absorb wonderfully. They are 100% Egyptian combed cotton and worth every penny of the (gulp) $200 I paid for them.

    Sometimes it is best to spend more, even a lot more; towels are one of those items because a good towel will last a very long time. Growing up, my family had one set of towels from my earliest memories until the last of my relatives passed away, so they lasted at least 26 years. I expect to get even longer from the towels I have now. I wash them in the washer, every so often with some added vinegar, and dry them on permanent press setting with a pair of plastic dryer balls thrown in to promote fluffiness. I use them only for drying off humans. I have a few dollar store microfiber towels I use for general wiping, cleaning, and dog bathing, and two cheap beach towels I keep in the back of the car for outings and covering the seats when hauling dogs in the car.

    • HeatherSolos on April 26, 2011 at 5:03 pm

      Towels and cookware are definitely places where an investment in quality can lower your cost over the long run. Quality doesn't necessarily mean brand-name and some brands are certainly over-priced, but to a point you get what you pay for.
      We have a mishmash of towels I love and towels I tolerate. Eventually I'll get around to weeding out the tolerates.

  12. Chuck Boyd on April 26, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    Say, wait a minute…how do towels "get dirty?" They're drying off a newly-showered clean body??
    My recent post Just Rolling Along

  13. casey on April 26, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I also ahve a friend who works in the sheet/towel business, and he says that you should dry your towels on the low heat or no heat setting in the dryer – that will make them last longer. I dont know if that is true or not, I don't have the patience to wait 2 + hrs for my towels to dry once I wash them.

    • HeatherSolos on April 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      Over drying does weaken fibers and this is much more likely to occur at high heat. Your friend is correct.

  14. casey on April 26, 2011 at 11:53 am

    In my experience 'egyptian cotton' towels are never absorbent. They tend to whisk the moisture away as opposed to absorbing it into the towel. I can see why some may prefer ths method, however I always feel like I am still wet after I dry off.

    I recently purchased some a very expensive set (like $100) which has been the best money i spent in a long time. The towels are thick & absorbent, but they take FOREVER to dry.

    • casey on April 26, 2011 at 11:55 am

      i.e if I mornign shower sometimes they are still damp if I evening shower. But I can tell a difference drying off between them and my 'cheap' towels.

    • Fentoni on March 14, 2014 at 2:57 pm

      “purchased some a very expensive set” … what brand, material, etc.?

  15. Emily on April 26, 2011 at 11:38 am

    Unbleached cotton has to be degummed in some way for it to be fully absorbent. You can wash them in hot water a few times with vinegar/peroxide/oxyclean.
    My recent post As if I didn’t have enough to do

    • HeatherSolos on April 26, 2011 at 11:40 am

      Great point! I should have noted that as I had to go through the process when I bought unbleached cloth diapers for my kids. Thanks for mentioning it.

      • Anna on April 26, 2011 at 12:53 pm

        I came through from the feed reader to say the same thing, basically. I figure they add fabric softeners to make it feel soft and sell them, so wouldn't you have to remove it all?

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