How to find the perfect towel — stick to white.
My five houseguests are due any minute. The guest rooms are ready except for towels. I head confidently to the linen closet. One of the few things I pride myself on is that I tie sets of sheets and towels in ribbons precisely so I can easily retrieve full, coordinated packages for guests.
I open the closet. Call the police! The linen closet’s been ransacked. Ribbons are unfastened. Once nicely folded towels are shoved in wads, frayed and faded, as if they’ve taken the fast train to aging.
Apparently, my ribbon system didn’t prevent certain members of my family from having their way with these sets. These hoodlums have helped themselves to a pillow case here, a face towel there. These items go in gym bags, on sleepovers or into the Black Hole and never return.
I try to patch together a few complete sets. When I do find a bath towel, face towel and washcloth that were a family, no pieces match. Colors have taken detours, disavowing their relations. Certain towel-family members look as if they’ve been living with a cheese grater on the beach. I can’t give these towels to my friends.
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“I’m sorry about the towels,” I say, when I hand my friend, who has arrived with her husband and three children, a scrap pile of terry cloth not fit to wash the car.
“I had no idea such degeneration had occurred in my linen closet.”
“Same thing happened to me,” she said, reminding me of why I love girlfriends. “I got these lovely green towels for the whole house, but after a few washings they turned different shades. I have to get all new ones.”
I tell her how my teenager turned her towels into a tie-dye project with her skin products. (Heads up, parents of teens: Benzoyl peroxide and colored fabrics don’t mix.) Her younger sister used her towels to remove purple nail polish.
The towel talk made me feel better, not so alone. Then I started investigating. A towel expert who did not want to be outed divulged that stores push colored towels because they sell more.
Color is a cheap, short-term design thrill for people seeking easy change. But like romance, dreams and skin tone, color fades, making towels look tired; color trends change, so consumers keep buying new ones, ushering out mauve for persimmon.
I call my friend, now back to her home. “We’re victims of the color trap!” I exclaim. “The only winners are towel companies!”
“So what’s the answer?”
I tick off the virtues: White doesn’t fade, never goes out of date and goes with everything. White towels are the stuff of fine hotels. They’re likely more sanitary because you can bleach and scald them, which makes you wonder what colored towels are hiding. If you buy plain white towels, when the new puppy uses the hand towel as a teething toy, you can pull a piece from another set and it will go.
“So we need to throw in our towels,” she says.
“And buy white,” I say.
“The color of surrender.”
“The color of smart.”
One home-design mantra I try — not always successfully — to live by is this: Buy it once. Buy it right. That means not clogging my cupboards with towels that just keep looking worse.
Here’s a guide to buying towels you love that will last:
Don’t rely on towels to provide bathroom pizazz. People often buy colored towels to jazz up a bathroom, but towels shouldn’t be the focal point any more than toilet paper should be. Add drama with wall color, fixtures, art, mirror frames and accessories. Let the towels be white.
Fabric is key to function. Look for high-grade, combed cotton. Avoid synthetics. Higher-grade cottons (Egyptian, Supima, Turkish) have a long staple, or fiber, so they last longer and absorb more. Combed cotton has had the shorter threads removed, so towels don’t pill or cover you with lint. Edges should be double turned and double stitched to prevent fraying.
Dense loops equal thirsty towels. Most towels are terry, meaning they have loops. Look for tightly woven loops that stand up straight like grass. You shouldn’t see the base of the towel. Velour towels feel nice, but aren’t as thirsty.
Don’t be a sucker for softness. Many people buy towels for how soft they feel. Manufacturers know this and coat towels with sizing to achieve that silky feel. Sizing, however, repels water, so towels push water around. After several washings, sizing comes out — a good thing — but towels feel coarser, leaving you feeling deceived. Adding vinegar to the rinse cycle helps cut through sizing. Never add fabric softener.
Too much of a good thing. Thick towels feel luxurious, but towels can be too thick. Thick towels get heavy, take longer to dry and hog shelf space. Find a happy medium. My criteria: A towel shouldn’t be so thick that you can’t dry inside your ears.
Cover your bottom line. When buying bath towels, open them for size. They run from 27 x 50 inches to 40 x 70 inches and many sizes in between. If you’re taller or larger than average, you may prefer a bath sheet. Select a size right for your body, erring toward generous. It should wrap you and cover the basics.
If you must display fancy towels, go ahead. Just don’t use them. Some towels are just decorative. I have trophy towels — spice-colored, satin-embellished — in my master bath, where my husband is under strict orders not to touch them. For everyday, we use white.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo), available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Details at www.marnijameson.com.