What Are Towels Made Of? – Fiberologies 101 Lesson 2
Welcome to Fiberologies 101! This introductory course covers everything you need to know when shopping for towels.
In this four-part series, you’ll learn all the elements that make a great towel, along with some common towel terminology. If you’ve ever wondered what towel terms like “GSM”, “low twist”, or “Supima cotton” really mean then this is the course for you. By the end, you’ll be able to identify common towel styles, construction, and fibers like a pro!
Lesson 2 – What are towels made of?
Welcome to Lesson 2! In this lesson, you’ll learn about the most common materials used to weave towels, as well as the unique characteristics that these fibers can provide.
Now that you’ve completed Lesson 1 about the parts of a towel, we’re going to turn to the raw materials used in towel weaving. Yes, folks: it’s time to talk about fiber!
Practical lesson prep: If you can, go grab a bunch of your towels before you start, and check the labels for what they’re made of. (Hint: If you can’t read the label any more, it may be time to replace them. :)
Most towels are made of 100% cotton, but other materials are becoming more popular. Some other common fibers used are flax (linen), polyester (microfiber), bamboo, alternative wood fibers (Tencel), hemp, and ramie.
In this lesson, we’ll take a look at each of these fibers and how they affect the appearance and performance of a towel.
Towel fiber cross sections
Cotton is the most commonly used fiber in towel making. The chances are that all of your towels have a percentage of cotton in them. Cotton is soft and absorbent. However, not all cotton is created equal, and there are many different types which are grown all over the world, all with different properties.
Let's start by looking at some of the good and bad of cotton before we jump into some of the different types of cotton used in towel making.
Cotton is a great towel material because it’s plant-based, super soft, absorbent, and affordable. It also holds dye color well, and gets even stronger when wet! However, different types of cotton have these advantages in different degrees. The most important factor when determining cotton quality is the fiber length (commonly called the staple length). In general, the longer the staple, the higher the quality of the fiber.
Cotton staple length ranges
Cotton is a great natural material, but it does have some downsides. It’s a particularly thirsty crop, requiring lots of water to grow compared to more eco-friendly alternatives. Cotton plants also don’t have any natural ability to fight off pests, so they’re often sprayed with pesticides to prevent insects from damaging them.
Finally, cotton is mostly harvested by picking tractors. These machines have increased picking efficiency tremendously, but they also destroy the entire cotton plant in the process. This makes it impossible to get multiple harvests from the same plant.
Now that you know some of the good and bad about cotton, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common types used in towels.
Upland cotton is a utility fiber that’s great for mass production but doesn’t provide the same softness or absorption of more premium cotton types. Still, it’s a popular choice for towels. If you’re looking at a 100% cotton towel and the type of cotton isn’t specified, it’s probably made of upland cotton.
Upland has short-staple fibers and is used in a lot of everyday clothing items like denim jeans and flannel. The cotton is generally not as soft or durable as some of the other types. The shorter fibers also mean more exposed fiber ends in the yarn, and this can make for a rougher feel.
Upland cotton is fine for kitchen towels if you like to buy towels in bulk and prefer to wash them frequently after just a few uses. Upland is an affordable option that still provides the general hardiness and absorbency you expect from 100% cotton towels.
Turkish cotton is a long-staple fiber that’s lightweight and quick-drying. It’s more absorbent than upland cotton but less absorbent than some other long-staple varieties like pima cotton or Egyptian cotton.
Cotton has been an important product in Turkey since at least 400 A.D. The country’s temperate climate and rich soil are ideal for growing the crop. It was originally mostly used in flat-weave Turkish towels, which were a staple of Turkish bathing (hamam) culture. Nowadays, Turkish cotton is also used in terry towels.
Longer-staple cotton has fewer exposed fiber ends, which gives Turkish cotton fabrics a smoother feel.
Turkish cotton is lightweight but strong and has a smooth feel. It tends to be less absorbent than other long-staple fibers when new, but dries quickly after getting wet. Fast drying is highly sought after in towels, as it helps limit the buildup of bacteria and keeps them smelling fresh.
Turkish cotton makes great bath and hand towels as it feels great to the touch and dries quickly after use. If your bathroom has poor circulation for towel drying, Turkish cotton is a good choice.
Egyptian cotton is a thick and plush-feeling fiber that’s great at absorbing moisture but can be slow to dry.
Egyptian cotton threads are thick and fluffy from the start, which gives Egyptian cotton towels a luxurious feel. It also makes them great at absorbing moisture. However, the moisture gets trapped in the thick threads, and to fully dry, these towels often need to be put in the dryer or hung in areas with good air circulation.
Great for bath and face towels, Egyptian cotton provides that luxury plush feeling of a spa towel. If you want the full spa experience, look for a towel with a high GSM (600-900). When shopping for Egyptian cotton, also make sure to check that the towel uses only long-staple fibers, as Egyptian cotton towels are often sneakily made with blends of short- and long-staple.
Towel fiber traits
Pima cotton is similar to Egyptian cotton. It has a thick and luxurious feel and is both durable and soft to the touch. Unlike Egyptian cotton, which must be grown in Egypt, pima cotton is grown in various countries around the world. It’s mostly grown in the United States. Pima production makes up just 2% of the cotton grown worldwide.
Pima cotton is great for bath towels, as it provides that plush feel of a spa towel and is highly absorbent. It’s a good choice if you prefer to buy products sourced domestically.
Supima is a brand name for pima cotton that’s highly regulated to maintain a higher grade and quality. This variety of pima cotton must be grown in the United States and has to pass additional tests to be considered Supima.
The additional testing means that Supima fibers are stronger, softer, and often more durable than pima cotton. However, the extra certification and testing do make Supima some of the most expensive cotton in the world.
Supima cotton towels are generally more expensive than other cotton towels, but the increased price brings superior quality. Great for any bathroom towel, Supima towels are extremely soft and long-lasting, and just get softer the more you wash them.
Organic cotton is short- or long-staple fiber cotton which is grown using more environmentally sustainable methods. Organic production maintains soil health by rotating crops, prohibiting the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers, and using non-genetically-modified seeds. All of this leads to a reduction in greenhouse gasses and water use in the growing process.
Organic cotton can be purchased in different qualities, ranging from short to extra-long staple fibers. Because the cotton seeds have not been genetically engineered, the longest organic cotton fibers can still be shorter than the fibers in premium non-organic types of cotton.
Organic cotton products are often slightly less soft and durable compared to non-organic, but generally, you won’t feel much of a difference. Pima and Supima cotton can both be produced organically, but organic versions of these cottons are scarce and hard to find in towels.
Organic towels are great for all purposes. They perform very similarly to their non-organic counterparts, and the manufacturing process that goes into them is much more sustainable. Look out for products with GOTS certification to ensure that you’re getting towels made of the best truly organic fibers.
While cotton is the most commonly used fiber, there are plenty of great alternatives that can be used alone or blended with cotton to make amazing and often more eco-friendly towels.
Alternative fibers commonly used in towel making
Flax (more commonly known as linen) is an eco-friendly, highly absorbent, and lightweight fiber, but these performance benefits come with a price premium over cotton.
Flax (linen) towels are more absorbent than cotton but don’t hold on to liquid, which allows them to dry quickly. Linen towels are extremely durable and only improve with age, getting softer over time without losing their strength. Linen is also a very lightweight material, which makes it a great choice for travel or commuting.
Linen can be an eco-friendly towel choice, as it can be industrially grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals. During the manufacturing process, every part of the plant is used, which makes for very little waste.
Linen is great for kitchen and travel towels, as it’s a tough material that can handle wear and tear. It’s lightweight and has a nice stiffness that allows for a tight fold, limiting the amount of space needed for storage. All these properties make linen a great choice for fitting into your kitchen drawer or packed suitcase.
Microfiber is a synthetic material, typically a blend of polyester and nylon. Microfiber towels are lightweight and fantastic at picking up dirt and grease but aren’t environmentally friendly.
Microfibers are very thin—as thin as 1/100th the diameter of a human hair and 1/3rd the diameter of cotton fiber. The fineness of the fibers allows them to be packed together very tightly when making a towel, which is why they’re so effective at cleaning: the tight packing allows microfiber towels to pick up dirt from surfaces and trap it in the tight spaces between threads.
Microfiber is both lightweight and highly absorbent, and can hold up to 7 times its weight in water. Because it’s a synthetic material, it keeps its strength when wet, and so performs better than some natural fibers for wet cleaning.
While microfiber performs well for tasks like house cleaning or car drying, it’s still a plastic material which is not recyclable and takes a long time to biodegrade. Due to their composition, when microfiber materials are put in the wash, they end up shedding microplastics into the water, which can be harmful to the environment. Microfiber cloths are best suited for specialty use, and are popular with car mechanics or industrial cleaners, especially when cleaning up lubricants or strong chemicals.
Despite their performance, microfiber towels aren’t the best choice for everyday use given their negative impacts on the environment. If you already own microfiber towels, try to machine wash them as little as possible to avoid shedding additional microparticles into the environment. If you’re shopping for replacements, consider cotton or more eco-friendly towels and cloths.
Bamboo is a manufactured cellulose fiber that can be up to 40% more absorbent than cotton. Bamboo fiber, sometimes labeled rayon or viscose, is durable, soft, and holds color dyes well.
Bamboo production is a sustainable alternative to cotton. Growing bamboo uses just a third of the amount of water required to grow cotton. Bamboo also doesn’t require pesticides, and grows extremely quickly, with some species growing up to 4 feet a day! An added benefit of bamboo fiber is that it's 100% biodegradable.
Bamboo can take in three times more water than its weight, which makes it great for wicking away excess moisture from the body.
Bamboo is a great material for face towels, as it's very soft and can absorb a lot of water. With proper care, towels that feature bamboo also tend to not get musty as quickly as pure cotton. However, be careful when opting for 100% bamboo towels, as often these are not machine washable and can be delicate.
Other wood fibers (Tencel)
Tencel is a natural tree material which has been turned into cellulose fibers through a manufacturing process. Alternative wood fibers, often sold in the United States under the brand name Tencel, are considered to be an environmentally-friendly material. They provide good comfort, absorption, and elasticity in towels.
Tencel fibers have a very smooth appearance, are resistant to wrinkling, and are biodegradable. Tencel can be produced using the same viscose process as bamboo, but it’s more commonly produced using a different technique known as the lyocell process.
Tencel also uses wood from eucalyptus trees, which require minimal pesticide spraying and less watering than cotton farming.
Owing to its premium price, Tencel is rarely used on its own to produce towels, but it’s great when blended with cotton. Tencel blends make for long-lasting and soft bath towels. They also make great cleaning towels, adding extra absorption, durability, and flexibility.
Hemp is a great sustainable fiber that’s stronger, more absorbent, more durable, and more rigid than cotton. Hemp has a rougher texture, and in its natural state can fray easily. The plant is a variety of the cannabis plant that’s grown for commercial purposes. Industrial hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, which is the active ingredient in marijuana.
Hemp fibers have a relatively large surface area, which is what makes them so absorbent. The surface area also allows the fibers to dye well and retain color better than cotton or linen. Because hemp fabric is rough, the fiber is often blended with cotton. This makes for a great combination, with the cotton providing a soft feel while the hemp adds strength and crispness to the fabric. Note that hemp, like cotton, does shrink when first washed.
A hemp blend is ideal for kitchen towels or cleaning towels, as hemp fibers can significantly increase towel strength and absorbency. Given that hemp has a rougher feel, it’s less suited to a bath towel or face towel.
Ramie is grown principally in eastern Asia. It's one of the strongest natural fibers and gets even stronger when wet. This makes it a great fit for towels that need to soak up a lot of liquid. Ramie is also known for its anti-wrinkling properties, its ability to retain its shape, and the silky look it gives to fabric.
Ramie fibers are a great sustainable choice. Grown commercially without the use of pesticides or fertilizer, a single plant can be harvested two to three times a year, and in ideal conditions, ramie can be harvested up to six times in the same year.
Although it's not often seen in towel products in the United States, ramie is great for towels when paired with cotton. On its own, it's not as durable as other fibers, but ramie-cotton blends make for excellent, highly absorbent cleaning towels.
Lesson 2 recap
Lesson 2 down! You’re now halfway through our Fiberologies 101 course on towel mastery. You now know to be on the lookout for Supima cotton for that luxury bath towel experience, and thin, crisp linen towels for when you’re on the go and need your towels to dry quickly. You can also make a sustainable choice between upland cotton and water-saving options like hemp and ramie.
If you enjoyed learning about what towels are made of but still want to learn more, power up to Lesson 3 – Types of towel fabric.
You can also drop us a question in the comments if there's anything more you'd like to know! We'll be happy to help.
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