Buying Guide to Towels

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Towels are about both function and style. After all, the right towel is practical (and hopefully luxurious) when you use it, and decorative when it's hanging on the towel rack. That makes choosing the right towels a good idea. Here's what you need to know to find a towel that does its job beautifully.

Towels

How do you want your towels to feel-thick and dense, or lighter and super-fluffy.

  • If a towel is denser and has a bit of weight to it, it's usually more durable and will be very absorbent.
  • If a towel has a soft, velvety texture and is light and airy, it will be soft and fast-drying.

Avoid towels that feel thin or scratchy. They won't improve with washing, and will wear out fast.

What do you want your towels to do?

I want towels that are: Consider:
Thirsty and super-absorbent Egyptian or Pima Cotton: These varieties of cotton make towels that soak up water fast. (These towels are also luxurious and comfortable.) Two-ply towels are the most absorbent.
Quick-drying after use Microfiber towels are made with man-made materials. They're among the most quick-drying towels, and they store easily-but they're not the plushest feeling. There are also cotton towels labeled "quick dry" that are designed to dry faster than typical towels.
Made to last (durable) Egyptian, Turkish or Pima Cotton: Towels made with any of these long-staple cottons are very durable and long lasting (with proper care, of course).
Easier on the environment Organic cotton towels are made with cotton grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. To be certified as organic, cotton must establish itself through third-party certifications. It doesn't impact the final product, however: Organic cotton has the same feel as non-organic cottons. Towels labeled quick dry are also a little lighter on the environment because they require less time in the dryer when you launder them.
Ultra-fluffy Egyptian or Pima: These varieties of cotton (along with Supima®-Superior Pima fabric) are luxurious and tend to make very fluffy towels. Turkish cotton towels are also very cushy.
Pretty to look at, with a natural sheen Turkish cotton is said to have a nice natural sheen. Also consider viscose from bamboo towels, which are made from the bamboo plant and also have a bit of inherent natural luster.
Pretty: These towels are for looks only; I'm not worried about how well they'll work Decorative towels. These come in various styles; most won't stand up to heavy use or frequent laundering. The most popular decorative towels are:
  • Jacquard: A pattern is woven directly into the fabric.
  • Print: A design is printed on the surface of the towel.
  • Embellished: The towel is accented with trim and/or designer embroidery.
Easy to pack for travel Microfiber: Towels made with these man-made fibers are light and small-great for travel, but not the most luxurious feeling.
Safe to wash with bleach Color Solutions or lasting color towels: These towels are specially constructed to withstand the strain bleach puts on towels (even white ones).

Which size towels do you need?

The towel you need depends on how you'll use it.

I need: Buy: Usually measures around:
A post-bathing towel that is big enough to really wrap myself up in. Bath Sheet: This towel is a little larger than a bath towel-which makes it great for drying off and wrapping up in. 35” by 60" – 70"
A standard towel for drying off post-shower or bath. Bath Towel: The standard body towel for drying after a shower or bath. 27" by 52" – 58"
Something to use to wash my face or body. Washcloth: These are usually used in and out of the bathtub or shower for body, hands, and face. 13" by 13"
A towel for drying up after washing my hands. Hand Towel: For drying hands after washing. (Note: hand towels get used a lot, so look for durable options when selecting these). 16" by 28" - 30"
A pretty little towel for guests to use when they've washed their hands. Fingertip Towel: These are a bit smaller than standard hand towels. They're often used in guest bathrooms, or when entertaining-sometimes layered with hand towels for display. 11" by 18"
Something on the floor when stepping in or out of the shower. Tubmat: Dense and absorbent, a tubmat is placed on the floor for stepping out of the tub or shower. 22" by 34"

Will kids use the towels?

If kids will use the towels you're purchasing, ease of care really matters. Darker colors and patterns are usually best for towels that will be used by kids.

How many towels do you need?

If you're buying for: We recommend:
A bathroom
  • A washcloth
  • At least one hand towel
  • A bath towel
  • Two bath sheets
  • At least one tubmat/bathmat
A person
  • Three per person (one for use, one for the linen closet, and one for the laundry). Washcloths wear out most quickly, so you may want to buy an extra.

The best way to towel quality is by its material content and quality.

Towel Fabric

Cotton and cotton blends have traditionally been the most popular towel materials.

Cottons are judged by their staple length (the average length of their fibers); longer staple lengths are better for spinning into yarns for towels.

Cotton What it is
Egyptian cotton Probably the most famous cotton for housewares, Egyptian cotton is absorbent, strong, and plush.

Egyptian cotton comes from long staple cotton that is grown in the Nile River Valley.

Pima Cotton Pima cotton is a high quality, long staple cotton. It actually comes from the same plant as Egyptian cotton (above), but is grown in the Southwest United States. It's named after the Pima Native American tribe.
Supima® Cotton An abbreviation for "superior pima". Supima cotton is the finest yield of long staple Pima cotton that is grown exclusively in the United States by certified farmers.
Turkish Cotton Long staple cotton that's grown exclusively in Turkey. It is often noted for its natural sheen and extra durability.
Brazilian Cotton Basic cotton grown exclusively in Brazil that has a standard staple length.
Microcotton Long staple cotton produced in India. Is high in absorbency.
Organic Cotton Organic cotton is increasingly popular option for eco-conscious shoppers. It's grown without the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

If an organic product is certified, it will have a United States Government approved 3rd party certification to ensure authenticity.

The quality of the cotton grown organically will be the same as that of the non-organic variety (like Pima, Supima, etc.).

However, in the past few years several new fabrics-including man-made fibers and materials from alternate plants have been introduced.

Material What It Is
Viscose from Bamboo A synthetic fiber, created from bamboo plant, that is usually blended with cotton to produce a towel that is ultra-absorbent and possesses a natural silky sheen.
Modal This is a synthetic fiber (rayon) created with a natural material (usually from beech trees) and other materials. Modal is very soft, and stretches to fit various shapes.

Yarn Construction

In addition to the type of cotton used in a towel, the way the cotton is made into yarn will also have an impact on how the towel feels or functions.

Construction What It Is
Combed cotton This cotton is combed to remove short, uneven fibers, leaving behind only long and straight strands. This creates soft, strong yarns for towels.
Hygro Cotton This cotton yarn has a hollow core, which allows air at the center of the yarn. Hygro cotton absorbs more water, and towels made with it become extra fluffy with washing.
Low- or Zero-Twist Cotton To make the longest loops (see below), a yarn with very few twists is required. Twist refers to the number of twists per inch of yarn, therefore the lower the amount of twist in a yarn, the longer the loops. With long staple cotton yarn, low or zero twist fabric can be achieved.

Pile and Towel Construction

If you look closely at a towel, you'll notice that most of the time, the fibers are attached to the body of the towel in loops (looped fibers are sometimes called terry cloth). The height, or length of these loops determines the towel's pile, and the pile has a huge impact on how the towel feels.

Long Loops Longer loops create airiness that translates to fluffier, faster drying towels. These loops help the towel to wick moisture, rather than absorbing it.
Short Loops Shorter loops create the denser, thicker feeling towels. Short loop towels are very absorbent.
Velour Velour towels don't have loops at all-instead, the fibers in the towels stand up like blades of grass. This can make them less absorbent, but it creates a great surface for printing patterns. Velour towels are also very soft.
Two-ply Double the amount of yarn is used in the manufacturing process for increased absorbency and durability. The two ply towels tend to have a densely woven pile and a substantial, weighty feel.

Towel Sizes

Bath Towel The standard body towel for drying off after a shower or bath.
Bath Sheet Larger than a bath towel, it's a more luxurious size towel that you can really wrap yourself up in.
Hand Towel For drying hands after washing.
Washcloth Used in and out of the tub/shower for body, hands and face.
Fingertip Towel Smaller in size than the hand towel and often used in guest bathrooms or when entertaining.
Tubmat Dense and absorbent it is used for stepping out of the tub or shower.

The vast majority of towels are machine wash and dry-able. Go easy on bleach (even for bleach-safe towels), and avoid using fabric softeners-these coat the towel's fibers, reducing their absorbency.