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A Basic Guide to Bath Towels

Whether you use yours for drying off or simply as decoration, here's everything you need to know about this perennial bathroom staple.

Bath towels may be the hardest working members of your household. After all, we expect our towels and washcloths to keep us clean, dry us off, add to the look of our bathroom and, occasionally, wipe up after Fluffy tracks mud into the house. However, despite their versatility, towels are often underappreciated, with many people putting little thought into which type of towel they buy and bring home. But with a little knowledge, your towels will look, last and perform better in their many roles.

Fabric
All towels have a fabric weight, measured with a GSM (grams per square meter) number. This refers to the density of the fabric used to make that particular towel. Lower GSM towels are lighter and thinner, making them a great choice for a gym bag or trips to the beach. You'll likely want to save your heavier, thicker, higher GSM towels for use in the master or guest bathroom.

Most towels are made of cotton, but the look and feel of towels largely depends on what type of cotton is used. Towels designed and priced for everyday use are made of standard cotton, while Egyptian cotton is considered the crème de la crème of towel fabrics. These more expensive towels have longer, more-fibrous threads, meaning that each towel will have more moisture-sucking loops per inch. The ultra-soft, super-fluffy bath towels found in high-end spas and hotels are typically Egyptian cotton or increasingly, the American-grown version, called pima cotton, which offers a similarly luxurious look and feel.

But buyer beware, warns interior designer Carla Sanclemente of Sanclemente Designs in Hartford, Conn. Some manufacturers sell towels advertised as "made with" Egyptian or pima cotton, when in fact the fabric may have other materials in its makeup.

"Sometimes, 'luxury' bath towels actually have synthetics in them, to give a shinier look," Carla says. "And this restricts absorbency."

When shopping for better towels, be sure to check the labels and look for fabric of 100 percent Egyptian cotton, or for the Supima trademark,which guarantees a towel is made of 100 percent American pima cotton.

Other types of fabric are also starting to find their way into today's bath towels, including Modal, made of cellulose from beech trees. Its fans claim that it's about 50 percent more absorbent than even cotton alone, and that it won't fade over time, making it an excellent choice for bath towels.

Organic cotton bath sheets from Fisher Henney

Eco-conscious buyers can look for organic cotton towels or towels made from bamboo, which have a looser, velvety-soft texture compared to cotton towels. Bamboo, along with the newer hemp towels, has natural mildew-resistant qualities.

Unlike towels made from these natural products, microfiber towels are made of engineered fibers. They are lighter and thinner than cotton towels, with a suedelike texture and excellent absorbency. These specialty towels are popular for wringing water from wet hair without being too heavy.

Style
Because towels offer a relatively painless and inexpensive way to complement or change the look of your bathroom, decorators say they're a great way to have fun with design. Rather than trying to precisely match your towels to your wallpaper or paint, use them instead to draw out or accentuate the look you want.

"Towels are accessories, so why not use them to shake up the look of your loo?" says Jason Oliver-Nixon, creative director of NYC-based design firm John Loecke Inc. "I use towels just as I use the accessories in my wardrobe. They give some sizzle and style to an area of the house that's often overlooked."

Designer Judith Wilson of Los Angeles agrees. "Towels are like the jewelry for a bathroom," she explains. "They are design accents, much like throw pillows in the living room."

No matter what the bathroom backdrop, an abundance of bright, colorful towels placed around the room provides stylish punch.

"I have four different colors of towels on the shelves in my bathroom, and the colors give the room a focal point," says Jason, who adds that he often changes his bath towels to reflect a new season or even a different mood.

For a more classic look, nothing says total luxury like a bathroom fully stocked with freshly laundered, fluffy white towels. It's a timelessly posh look that never goes out of style. London designer Nina Campbell (www.ninacampbell.com) suggests monogramming even less-expensive white towels for instant elegance.

Seychelles towels from Ralph Lauren

Care
Bath towels of all types will look fresher and last longer if they are cared for properly. Manufacturers often coat new towels in a special fabric softener, which means the towels look extra fluffy and soft on the shelf, but don't absorb water well when you first bring them home. For this reason, it's best to wash your new towels before first use.

"For the very first wash, add a cup of vinegar to the wash cycle," suggests Judith Wilson. "This will help to set the color and prevent fading, especially of deep tones."

While a tumble in the dryer assures a fluffy towel, you don't want to overdo it, says Nina Campbell.

"The heat from the dryer can really damage fibers," she says. "Try using a lower-heat setting, or alternate between air and heat drying."

Dark and brightly colored towels should be washed separately. For your special, more expensive towels, using Woolite or another gentle-care detergent will keep them at their fluffy best longer.

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