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Absorb This!

August 12, 2021

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The American bathroom has gone from a boring three-fixture necessity to a spa-worthy destination, as seen in this design by Anthony Wilder Design/Build of Cabin John, Maryland, outside Washington DC.

By Nancy McKeon

WHEN DID toweling yourself off after a shower become an Olympic weightlifting event?

You’re standing there in the smallest room of the house, struggling to maneuver this weighty thing over your shoulders when you realize it’s not your mother’s heavy old Persian lamb coat you’re hefting, it’s your bath towel.

LEFT: The Ultralight bath towels from Brooklinen are made of 100% Turkish cotton, but the terry is only 320 GSM, meaning the towels are not as dense or as heavy and will dry faster, whether in the dryer or on the towel rack. This is closer to the towels I grew up with. A pair (30 x 58″) is $49. Brooklinen’s Classic Bath Towels, not shown, are sold in pairs, 2 for $59. Their weight is 550 GSM. (Brooklinen also has a Super-Plush, which weighs in at 820 GSM and is $69 for two).
RIGHT: Frontgate has these handsome Turkish-made towels, fashioned from hefty 800-GSM Egyptian cotton, known for its long staple. Each bath towel (30 x 58″) is $44.

Take the $89 Hotel Satin Stitch bath sheet (a five-foot-long bath towel won’t do) from Restoration Hardware, where the sofas are often 45 inches deep and hundreds of inches long (okay, I exaggerate on the latter point but not the former).

With a precision practically guaranteed to appeal to the overeducated, Restoration Hardware markets its bath towels by touting their poundage, or at least grams (of weight) per square meter (of fabric). The Hotel Satin Stitch Turkish cotton towels are made from 750 GSM (grams per square meter) cloth. Then there’s the 802-Gram Banded Turkish Towel collection.

LEFT: from Walmart, Hotel Style bath towels. $10.84 each.Turkish cotton, 30 x 58″. Walmart doesn’t seem to invest its energy in promoting the poundage of its products. RIGHT: The “exceptionally dense” 802-Gram Banded Turkish Towels from Restoration Hardware come in a dozen colors and are $51 each. They’re 30 x 56″.

Restoration Hardware is hardly alone. The “plush feel” of Pottery Barn’s Classic Organic Towels is the result of using 800-gram Turkish cotton. Brooklinen lists towels from 320 GSM (its Ultralight line) up to 820 (touted as the retailer’s best-seller.)

The descriptions of all of these towels impress upon the reader their exceptional absorbency. But to me, using them is like rubbing a stiff length of carpeting across your body, smearing the water across your skin and hoping it goes . . . somewhere.

Did I mention yet that these “super-plush,” “extra-absorbent” towels have a hard time drying themselves as well? Hence the introduction of “super light” and “fast-drying” towels. Translation: fewer grams per square meter.

I think it’s all part of the ongoing “hoteling” of the American bathroom. It used to be, what? a standard 5 by 8 feet, with a toilet, a sink and a bathtub? One sink became two. The bathtub became a combo bath-shower, then in more recent days gained a hand-held shower in addition (no complaint there!). The bath tub was lonely, so it was given a companion, a separate walk-in shower (ditto). And, despite the relative failure of the bidet to join the fun, the footprint of the room itself exploded, to the point where some (very odd) people have been known to entertain in their bathroom, which more closely resembles a spa.

When it comes to towels, I assumed I was being my cranky old self—until I stayed in a Turkish Suite at the Marti hotel in Istanbul, which unfortunately now seems to be closed. Those suites had hammam-style (an Islamic public bath) bathrooms complete with shower rooms. And there in my shower room were real, honest-to-goodness Turkish towels—not puffy, fluffy piles of terry cloth but incredibly absorbent “veils” of pure linen.

And they actually absorbed the water that was beaded on my body.

From Brooklinen, fringed and striped Hammam Towels have 15% polyester added to the cotton. The large (40 x 70″) sheets are $65.
The hammam style is still an outlier in the American market, which is probably why these towels are flat weave on one side and the more familiar terry loop on the other. The fabric here is 400 GSM.

This kind of flat weave is alien to Americans’ expectations of a bath towel. So even as Brooklinen and, yes, Restoration Hardware have begun to offer these Turkish delights (albeit in cotton), they aren’t going whole-Istanbul: One side is the classic (Turkish style) flat weave and the other has looped terry.

They’re not as light as they could be. But 320 GSM is less than half what the mega-towels weigh. And in many ways twice as useful.

This is arguably more attention than the average person is likely to pay to their bath towels, but just to give some context, here is some guidance from The Turkish Towel Company:

      “300-400 GSM – In this weight, the towels are lighter and thinner. But, depending on its use, you might want a lower GSM for the gym towel or a kitchen towel. A lightweight, quicker-drying beach towel might be around 350 GSM, for instance.

      “400-600 GSM – This is a medium weight. This weight is great for beach towels, bath towels, guest towels and so forth. Each consecutive gram weight –400, 500, 600– gets a little heavier, and a little more absorbent. [Author note: Ha!]

      “600-900 GSM – This is a premium, luxury weight. The towel will be denser, heavier, more absorbent. It will probably take a little longer to dry. [Another author note: No kidding!]

“Other factors that will influence the towel’s softness and absorbency are: type of cotton, whether the manufacturer uses a polyester blend (as we say here at The Turkish Towel Company, “Ixnay on the olyesterpay!”), whether the cotton is a single or double loop, and so on.”

One more cranky but well-intentioned piece of unasked-for advice from me: If you gaze at towels in those rich, dark colors and think “how sophisticated, how sleek, how modern,” please cast your mind’s eye forward about four years so you can imagine how dingy and drab and truly unappealing they will be, even if you no longer “see” them at that point. Whites, off-whites, pale tones are the way to go. And these colors are less likely to be discontinued too.

 

Restoration Hardware also offers “real” Turkish towels, also with one side finished with terry loops. The towels are 100% 320-GSM cotton, 27 x 56″. They’re $40 each in four sober color combos.



2 thoughts on “Absorb This!

  1. Nancy G says:

    Quite an education. Thanks. I love Turkish towels, particularly in the kitchen.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      It was a bit of a mental adjustment for me to use them after a shower–and I’m not totally there yet. One question I still have is why I grew up hearing the fluffy terrycloth towels referred to as “Turkish towels.”

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