topic: treatise on towels

a few questions about antique bath towels turns into a treatise!

Wow! My customer’s questions show that textiles are a critical part of life. But they always have been. Hope chests and trousseaus were the collections of the household items that a girl would need throughout her lifetime. Depending on her financial status, it might be a very long time before she would be able to afford to buy anything to replace the things she brought into her marriage (or, if unmarried, into her life as a single person.) Fabric was precious and necessary. If a sheet wore through, it was turned into teacloths, towels and rags for cleaning.

I have always wanted to get a few old linen damask towels to replace my modern terry-cloth towels, but I’ve always been a bit afraid [because] I wasn’t sure that I’d like them–nevertheless, I’m not big on modernity, either.

I do think they are an acquired taste! it is whatever you get used to and whatever you decide that you like. Remember that the looped terrycloth that became known as “Turkish Towels” have only been around for a relatively short time. (since the 1940s and 50s)

But in many parts of the world today, (Italy and France are where my experiences have been) non-terry towelling was and is the norm and pressed damask towels adorn every bar and rack in bathrooms from the towel bars on the sink to the bar near the bidet and the hooks for the bath-sized towels. I was none-too-pleased when I first encountered them as a novice traveler in Venice! They just seemed weird!

I’m not sure if the quality of modern terry-cloth towelling is just that much more inferior, or if instead they have always been a bit on the crummy side–then again, my grandmother still has most of her terry-cloth towels from the ’60s and they’re perhaps not as plush as today’s towels, but they seem more colour-fast and don’t seem nearly as ready for the bin as do the modern ones.

so many grades of goods exist today! You can make do with really cheap stuff or pay more for items of nicer quality. You can also pay lots for items that turn out to be “not-so-nice.” Find something you like. The trend is toward softer and softer towels; that is what people think they want but I think that is because that ‘s what the manufacturers are telling them that they (the customer) want. My sister gifted me with some ultra-soft towels a few years back and we hated them. They were so soft that they did not dry anything! Years of repeated washing helped them and we also got a bit more used to them because I liked the color!

I think people forget that towels are supposed to be absorbent and that fabric softener should never be used with them. Fabric softeners have become ubiquitous, though, and people seem to use them with everything. Especially dryer sheets! The dryer sheets basically coat your goods with smelly chemicals, yuck! Some people hang their towels to dry on clotheslines and even though they dry pretty rough, they certainly are absorbent. I often hang out my towels until they are 80-90% dry and then I bring them inside and use dryer balls to fluff them up a bit.

BUT! I found websites that advise using dryer sheets in places where there are mouse problems. Mice can’t abide them. I used some dryer sheets under the kitchen sink once and found I couldn’t abide them either: I could smell their reek the moment I entered the kitchen! Oops, chemicals and textiles shall be the topic of another blog, another day. But, I do worry that so many people accept so many potentially carcinigious chemical smells into their homes and lives without much thought. They use Febreze and equate the Febreze smell with a clean house…. but I believe that a clean house should not smell! And, it certainly should not smell like an artificial chemical rain shower.

Back to TOWELS topic!

But, all that aside, I’m not entirely certain that I really care for the modern plushness, anyway!  But, I don’t really have anything to contrast it with, because I’ve only ever had, and used, terry-cloth.  I did decide, when thinking about it, to towel off one day after a bath with an old linen table-cloth, which is larger than a towel, but smaller than most other table-cloths that I’ve seen.  The pros:  the antique linen is cooler (which, in heat, is a good thing); it’s less prone to collect lint and hair and then transfer it to ME; it seemed to wick off the water just fine.

The con:  it’s really thin, and (with a hand towel, for instance) therefore seems to require more of the towel to get one dry.  But, on the other hand, the thinness seems to lend it to drying much more quickly (even if it DOES wrinkle).

you have gone to so much more trouble and thought over this than most people! I’m impressed! Another really interesting characteristic of linen fibers is that they are ultra absorbent. BUT!!! And, here is the big but…. they have to be slightly dampened in order to really absorb more and they are hard to dampen when they are dry. Linen is a wonder fiber. Cotton is, too! They each have their wonderful uses! Linen is lint free and has superior drying ability… but only once you get it started! Yes, it wrinkles. Oh well.

As far as towels that are thinner… who ever said it was a rule that towels have to be thick?! (again, I think this is just a cultural experience. can’t you just hear the advertising words “thick and thirsty!?” they just happen not to use the words thin and thirsty!)

All that said, however, I’m still sort of afraid to start getting antique linens and throw out my modern towels, due to all the extra work that I’m sure is involved–the special washing, the pressing, &c.  But you’re so knowledgeable on the topic of linens, that I wondered what you thought about it.

I’d NEVER advise getting rid of perfectly good towels unless you found a super substitute (and unless everyone you live with also agreed that the change was for the better.) Linen towels need no special washing; linen is even stronger when it is wet. But, if you can not live with unironed stacks of towels, you either need to have trillions of them as backup, be an ironing fiend or have the luxury of sending them out to a laundry or housekeeper. (that’s not most of us) And, when I say that you might need to have trillions of them as backup, remember that, eventually you will have to iron them or live with them wrinkled.

I have a sort of relaxed attitude when it comes to wrinkles but remember, I iron twenty million (exaggeration; it just feels like that many) things every year to sell. I don’t always get to my own ironing pile!

Do you use antique towelling for everyday bathing (hope that question isn’t too personal!)?

I do keep a neatly folded stack of a dozen or so guest towels in my powder room bathroom. I love them because they are reused and are green rather than throwing away paper towels. Since they are “single use,” they are also hygenic. I keep enough of them (10-12) there that I don’t have to worry about running low. I also have a separate little basket that I label “cloth towels” to erase any confusion for guests who can’t figure out what to do with the used towel. (yes, I do sometimes retrieve them from the paper wastebasket and I retrieve paper from the cloth wastebasket as well. Not much of a problem though!)

As far as BATHING, I live in a cooler climate and I prefer terry towels. (It is antique BEDDING that sends me over the moon but I think that should be the topic of another blog as well!) I also prefer using a heated towel rack all year long on which to hang my towels. I have purchased and used linen towels as well as cotton waffle-weave towels. I find I like all of them for hand use but not for wrapping around my body. But, I also have some of those extra absorbent tiny foam towels that swimmers use and I take them with me when I travel, just in case I end up someplace without a towel. (it happened once and now I am prepared.)

I never use fabric softener with towels. never. If I ever did accidentally, I’d rewash everything.
In fact, that’s how we sort laundry in our house: Our categories are things that use fabric softener and things that don’t.

Do you really think that modern “plush” towelling is an improvement?

This is entirely a personal choice! One of my friends would never wrap cotton towels around her body! She’s a linen girl all the way! She has linen bathrobes, too. She once covered her floor with bolts of linen and varnished over it because she is such a linen nut. (I thought I was a linen nut but I have never gone that far!) Cotton terry is an improvement, however, in that it is affordable, decorative and easily purchased. In that it does not require ironing, it is also easy care. It does require a lot of energy to dry unless you hang it outside. That’s the other reason that damask and thinner towels are used in Europe and in places where electricity costs are sky high. We Americans may complain about our energy costs and gas prices but we have it really good! We can afford to use our washing machines and then run our dryers, too. We can’t even comprehend what high prices our European neighbors pay for energy!

And why has terry-cloth become so ubiquitous–just because it’s cheap?

Aha! Price always has something to do with everything.

There doesn’t seem to be much on the internet about the history of towels…Then again, I guess that’s a small surprise as Western bathing, as a practice in itself, was hardly existent until relatively recently.  That in itself would automatically lead me to the Japanese, as they have always been the cleanest culture around…but, all one really finds are Japanese wash-cloths, and honestly, I have no idea what they use for towelling (though a book on Japanese bathing says that they formerly used yukata for this purpose–that they would simply put the robe on after soaking, and then let it dry them while they wore it.  But, that was centuries ago and the practice has discontinued as yukata have become Summer fashion.  But that was all they said).  So, that’s sort of a dead-end, too!  I know these things seem terribly mundane, but, I find these differences in culture to be quite interesting.

I have no experience with this except that I read a really great book that I loved but now can’t find the name. It was written by an American journalist who had lived for more than 20 years in Japan. I’ll think of it later!

Oh, and one last thing.  What exactly is the difference between a “guest towel” and a bath towel?  Are “guest towels” even smaller?

They are just the names that have stuck. But they do pertain to sizes. A bath towel is bath-sized, for drying when you are bathing the entire body. That’s when you need a larger size. The guest towel or hand towel is sized to be near a sink for when you are drying your hands. A kitchen towel ostensibly gets used in the kitchen… but, I think that they, too, mostly dry hands! Oh yeah, dishes, too. For that, they are great and are super for glassware because they don’t streak or leave lint. And, a kitchen towel is a great size to use other places besides the kitchen but I use the nomenclature to signify a fairly long, generously sized towel that looks like a runner. And, there is a tiny towel called a fingertip size that is also used to dry hands in a power room or sometimes during an extremely fancy meal that offers finger bowls for washing after a particularly messy food course!

But that may be an etiquette question.

My best advice: never use fabric softener on towels of any kind.
And if you hate ironing but you hate wrinkles even more, linen may not be your best choice.


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2 Responses to “topic: treatise on towels”

  1. Gladys Thomas Says:

    do you always use a vinegar rinse after use of Restoration or Oxiclean?

    • linenmaven Says:

      Yes, I do. I use a little white vinegar after almost everything… it’s cheap and it pulls detergents and residues out of everything. It neutralizes bleach. It’s a pretty handy household helper! Soak your brand new swimsuit in water with a little vinegar added, too. It is supposed to help the suit keep its color longer.

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