Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Not precisely a rant...I mean, how upset can one get over towels? 

I like towels.  I like terry cloth.  I have been asked about the stuff a time or two, by people who think that I know a lot more about textiles than I actually do.  I looked up terry cloth, and found that it was first made of silk; invented in France in 1841.  Isn't it nice that they kept such precise records?  Someone in England decided to try it in wool a few years later (shudder), but it wasn't till 1848 that cotton was hit upon as the optimal fiber.

Terry cloth is made on something called a dobby loom.  Don't ask me to explain that one, but I think it means that the loom in question has the capacity to create a flat textile, while adding the loops as you go along.  I'm sure you've noticed that when you snag a loop on your bathrobe, the cotton thread pulls in only one direction.  There are no loops in the warp of the fabric, only in the weft.  I am not a weaver, so, if you are, please correct me if I'm wrong.  In other words, even if you pull out all the loops, you still have a piece of fabric, not a pile of thread.

In the 1840s, most weaving was done by hand, which would have made terry cloth very expensive.  Cotton hadn't been in use all that long (in Europe and America) and was considered a luxury fabric.  I remember seeing a Napoleonic era ball gown made out of cotton in an exhibit of 18th and early 19th Century clothing.  It was quite the thing, back then.

What, you might ask, did people use for towels before the advent of terry cloth?  I guess they used whatever they had.  Of course, towels weren't quite the necessity that they are today, as people bathed once a month or so, whether they needed to or not.  Cotton and linen are both nicely absorbent for all sorts of purposes.  All clothing eventually became rags, which would have been used for mopping, drying, diapering...whatever was needed.  Even before terry cloth, I expect one would have to have reached a certain standard of wealth in order to afford something specifically designed and built to be a towel.

We take our towels for granted these days, and the damn things have become bigger and thicker, until two or three of them will fill a dryer.  This, Dearly Beloved, strikes me as conspicuous consumption.  Jim loved his big fluffy towels, and I got into the fun and bought large quantities of colour-coordinated towels in various sizes for the three and a half bathrooms we had in the house on Pin Oak.  I still have a lot of them, though, almost ten years later, they are a little the worse for wear.  As they wear out and need replacing, I plan on buying smaller, thinner and cheaper towels.  The big fluffy ones have to be washed just as often as smaller ones and take up more room in the washer, dryer and linen cabinet.  I can get just as dry with a smaller one as a larger.

Upon further reflection, I may just buy some terry cloth by the yard and make my own.  That way, I can eliminate the flat woven strip across the width of the towel...the one that inevitably shrinks, giving my fluffy towels a puckered and unlovely look.

When I was a kid, we moved to Canada, leaving most of our stuff in storage in England, and making do with very little in those first years in British Columbia.  We had what we had.  Our first towels came in detergent boxes.  I kid you not.  People bought certain products because of the "freebies" included in the price, and Mom's favourite brand of detergent included towels.  Now, these towels were the cheapest, thinnest and scratchiest you could ever imagine, and I could see right through them when I took them down off the clothesline. We had pretty good skin--with every bath came exfoliation. 

There is a happy medium.  Somewhere between the sandpaper that those towels resembled and luxury "bath sheets," I'm sure I can find terry cloth that does the job without using three towels worth of cotton in one.

It does have to be cotton.  I've used towels made of polyester.  The best ones use the synthetic only in the base, with the loops being made of cotton, but the resulting towel is not as good as one that is 100% cotton.  And don't even try to sell me microfiber!  They say it's absorbent, but it doesn't feel that way.

Someday, I will have towels that I truly like.


  1. Hi Ronni!
    I LOVE terry cloth! In fact, I am now wearing terry cloth shorts! They aren't appropriate for public view but hey, perfect for lounging around the house!
    My blog is back up by the way :)


  2. Yay! Sabrina! I've missed you...I saw "Wait Until Dark," but didn't get a chance to talk to you after...you did an awesome job!