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Terry cloth, as far as towels go, doesn’t function as well as its competition. Turkish towels absorb more. Microfiber dries faster and harbors fewer bacteria. And yet, cotton terry cloth towels are still king in bathrooms and hotel rooms across the country.
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Most normal people don’t give a second thought to their towel’s material and weave, and more importantly, how these two factors conjoin to quick-dry everything from their freshly rinsed peaches to their body’s crevices.
The $4 billion+ cotton towel market didn’t grow to where it is because everyone needs towels. It’s grown because the market has widened with cotton towels of various weaves — and it’s projected to grow by another $25 million in 2023. The weave is what differentiates Turkish bath towels from waffle-knit kitchen towels and microfiber towels for backpacking trips. And, of course, the weave of terry cloth towels is what gives them their plush, fluffy texture that society can’t seem to part with.
Terry cloth and Turkish towels are often pitted against one another for the coveted default spot in linen closets. The former stands out for its winning combo of softness and absorbency while the latter is prized for being lightweight, durable, and practical. Despite mounting evidence that other towels function better, terry cloth still holds the default position in the marketplace because most wet, slippery humans crave comfort above all else.
Towels perform an essential task: absorbing and wicking water away from the skin. This ability is called hygroscopicity and varies depending on the material’s chemical makeup, according to Izabela Ciesielska-Wrobel, assistant professor of textiles, merchandising, and design at the University of Rhode Island.
“Almost all towels are [made of] cotton,” said Ciesielska-Wrobel. “There’s a natural ability of the cotton plant — the fiber — to absorb moisture.”
Cotton can absorb about 20 to 30 times its own weight in water, a mighty feat that’s put it center stage in bedding and bath departments. But it’s hardly the only natural fiber capable of this feat.
Other natural materials like linen (made from the flax plant), bamboo, and hemp are just as absorbent, give or take a few other drawbacks. Both linen and hemp can hold around 20 times their respective weights in water and dry quickly. Bamboo can absorb just as much but releases the water quickly, often back onto the skin, which can make towels feel slippery and not as comfortable.
Amanda Thompson, associate professor of clothing, textiles, and interior design at the University of Alabama, said that most products marketed as being made of bamboo usually aren’t. Instead, they’re usually a blend of other fibers, typically synthetic ones like rayon, due to the chemical process used to extract the fibers from the plant, which doesn’t make them entirely eco-friendly as bamboo towels are often purported to be.
“If you see somebody saying they have bamboo towels, more than likely they are regenerated rayon towels that are started with a bamboo but once you do that process [of turning bamboo into fiber], you’ve pretty much stripped any properties out of the original fiber,” said Thompson.
Blending natural fibers with synthetic ones will make recycling or biodegrading the fabric harder, added Thompson.
But the fibers alone don’t maketh the towel. The weave structure, or how the fibers are interlocked together in the form of yarn, boosts a towel’s absorbency and impacts its quality and feel.
A popular weave structure among towels is the terry cloth, first developed in the late 1840s by English weaver Samuel Holt. While most fabric is made by weaving yarn in two directions — vertical (or warp) and transverse horizontal (or weft) — terry cloth is made by two overlapping warps. One warp serves as the ground layer and the other the pile layer. Ciesielska-Wrobel and Thompson explain this pile layer has loops of yarn jutting out. (The word terry actually refers to the French word “tirer” meaning “to pull out” referring to the loops.)
Having these jutting loops “allows the fiber to have the maximum amount of exposure to the water and pull it in,” said Thompson. “I think of it sometimes like the villi in your intestine that stick out so we can absorb [more nutrients] from food.”
Not only do the loops add extra absorbency, but they also give terry cloth-weaved towels a pleasant, puffy feel — the longer the loop, the softer and better at soaking up water. Additionally, depending on how hard the fibers are twisted into yarn — whether zero-twist or low-twist — the more airy and plush the towel becomes without skimping on absorbency.
“The tactile perception matters,” said Ciesielska-Wrobel. “Ultimately, you want the fabric to feel nice against the skin.”
Ciesielska-Wrobel compared the soft, plush, almost decadent experience of cotton to other fabrics like microfiber, a material commonly used to make hair towels. The polyester fibers are fine and absorb water like a sponge, but the material lacks the softness of cotton.
Turkish (or hammam) towels, on the other hand, are woven entirely differently, in what’s called a flat weave. They’re made of longer fibers, so they can swell up more, giving Turkish towels a leg up in absorbency. But without any fuzzy, luxuriant loops, these towels are rougher on the skin.
Turkish towels are utilitarian and practical. They’re for the guy who buys a Volvo instead of the Mercedes. Yes, it passed safety tests with flying colors, but the seats are a little less plush.
Most people, it turns out, prefer the hug to the brisk handshake. The triple-ply over the thinner, flimsier, cheaper brand. The moment immediately post-shower is vulnerable, and terry cloth is clinging to its top slot by much more than one thread because it’s the most comfortable option available.
BEST BUDGET PICK
Everplush's Diamond Jacquard Quick Dry Bath Towels
Buy Now On Amazon
Everplush’s Diamond Jacquard Quick Dry towels are SPY’s editor’s budget pick for cotton towels available on Amazon. They’re soft, but don’t feel incredibly luxurious. They feel like they wick away moisture quicker than some thicker, heavier towels that can sometimes just push water around. The texture is coarse, for a towel, which turns out to be a good thing in this case.
Brooklinen Super-Plush Bath Towels
It’s hard to go wrong with Brooklinen. For a higher price point, their plush bath towels feel like they’re in another tier. They’re made of 100% Turkish cotton, extra thick, and are a perfect wrap after stepping out of a sudsy tub on a Sunday night.
Frontgate Resort Collection Bath Towels
If pulling out all the stops for your linen closet is in the cards, go with Frontgate. They’re the masters of making small home details as luxurious as possible. These towels feel decadent, don’t fray at the ends, and aren’t too heavy for the average 3M bathroom hook. Plus, it’s hard to beat that color selection.
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