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What are the Different Kinds of Towels?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The term “towel” covers a variety of fabrics and sizes, but in general, it is designed to assist with cleanup. As such, a towel is usually made from an absorbent material, and it is intended to be washed, potentially in hot water and bleach to remove bacteria. Care directions vary, depending on the material used, but as a general rule, they should not be left damp for an excessive period of time, and they should be washed frequently to discourage the growth of bacteria. Three essential characteristics dictate what type of towel one is: the materials used, size, and the intended use.

Cotton and linen are two popular textiles for towels, since they are highly absorbent and breathable. Cotton is often woven into a looped terry design, which is extra absorbent, or a waffle weave. Some manufacturers also use microfiber and similar textiles, often made from synthetic materials and designed to be extremely absorbent. As a general rule, terrycloth is used for bath and hand towels, while waffle weave cotton is used for kitchen towels, and plain cotton and linen weaves are designed for use as tea towels. Those made of microfiber are often used in spas and at hairdressers to absorb moisture from wet hair.

Size is also an important determining factor. Those used in the kitchen, like dishrags, might be very small, while generic ones and hand towels are larger. Bath towels come in a range of sizes, from minimal to quite large, and very large ones are also adapted for beach use. Other specialized types include face towels, which are usually quite small, and tea towels, which are usually the size of a hand towel.

They can be broken down by intended use. Bath, kitchen, and general household towels often have distinctly different patterns and weaves to help distinguish them. Guest towels might be a different color, or embroidered to indicate that they are intended for the use of guests. Dish towels and generic kitchen ones are usually plain and utilitarian, often made from a white fabric which can be bleached, while more ornamental types have decorative patterns.

When selecting towels, you should think about their intended use. You may find it helpful to purchase bath sets in different colors so that ownership is not confused, for example. Kitchen towels come in a range of colors to coordinate with kitchens, along with a range of sizes. It is difficult to have too many, so do not be afraid to stock up. You can also save money and the environment by using fabric towels around the kitchen, rather than paper ones.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On Sep 08, 2012

I love huge beach towels. They are really nice to wrap up in after getting out of the water and exposing my skin to the air, because I usually get chills right away, and the towel shields me from the breeze.

I have a collection of beach towels from my favorite vacation spots. Some have the names of the cities on them, while others just have tropical designs. I have some that are covered in hibiscus flowers, palm trees, and dolphins.

Most beach souvenir stores offer a lot of huge, thick beach towels to choose from with bright, attractive designs. Rather than buy one near home, I wait until I'm on vacation, because I can get much better towels that way.

By feasting — On Sep 07, 2012

@OeKc05 – I probably wouldn't use a linen bath towel, either. My favorite kind is the terrycloth towel, because it is so plush.

I first decided to get terrycloth bath towels after my husband bought me a robe of the same material. If I wore this robe while my hair was wet, then my hair would dry in no time, so I could see that it had to be very absorbent.

Now, when I travel and stay in a hotel or someone else's home, I really miss my terrycloth towels. It's hard to go back to using another kind after you've been spoiled by this material.

By OeKc05 — On Sep 06, 2012

I've heard that linen towels dry really quickly. I have some that I use for drying dishes in my kitchen, but I can't imagine using one made of this material after getting out of the shower.

It seems kind of rough and thin. I don't understand how it can absorb much of anything.

By cloudel — On Sep 06, 2012

Kitchen towels are great for cleaning up a huge puddle of spilled water, but if I spill just a little puddle of something, especially if it's sticky, I prefer to use paper towels for cleanup. This way, I don't have to wash a kitchen towel afterward. I can just throw the paper towel away.

I've heard that it's a lot more sanitary to use paper towels for cleaning up kitchen messes on countertops than to use cotton towels, because if you reuse the cotton towel without washing it first, you could spread bacteria all around. I keep several rolls of paper towels on hand for dirty jobs.

By CaithnessCC — On Apr 23, 2011

When I left home for college my mother bought me a set of bamboo towels! Despite the source material they are really soft, and feel pretty much like cotton. She told me later the real reason she chose them was that they don't need to be bleached or washed at high temperatures!

By Penzance356 — On Apr 20, 2011

@MissMuffet - Towels are always a great gift for engagement or wedding presents in my opinion. I would buy two from each size range and maybe throw in a beach towel if you have spare cash. If you can buy from a luxury towel range that would be extra special.

I don't know if you have thought about colors, but I like the idea of a contrast, say one pink and one black towel in each size. I guess that depends a little on their bathroom color scheme though. If you don't know it is better to stick to something neutral.

By MissMuffet — On Apr 19, 2011

I'm going to a wedding soon and the bride has listed a towel set on her gift list. Bad luck for me that there are no more details, so I am wondering what to buy. Money's not a problem so I could go for a luxury or personalized towel set. But if I buy them individually, how many would be an acceptable gift?

By Valencia — On Apr 16, 2011

@anon23414 - I have several tea towels which are made from terry cloth, though they aren't as absorbent as the linen type.

I always thought kettle towels were for picking up the kettle from the stove. These days many people use the automatic electric type, so perhaps that's why it is more for decoration.

By anon23414 — On Dec 24, 2008

I was recently bought a "kettle towel". It is obviously decorative, but is made of terry cloth, so it cannot be a tea towel. What is a Kettle Towel?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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