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.
Damp on the Danford
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?
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.
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