One of life's small pleasures is stepping out of a shower or bath and wrapping yourself in a cottony soft, plush towel that does its job in seconds. At the same time, one of life's minor annoyances is stepping out of a shower or bath and into a scratchy, thin towel that just redistributes the water droplets on your body. Fortunately, it's an easy annoyance to avoid, with the abundance of luxury towels, made of the finest cottons from faraway lands, so readily available. With just a little know-how before you hit that next white sale, you'll be cocooning yourself in spa-like luxury every time you step out of the shower.

The single most important factor that determines a towel's quality is the type of fiber from which it's made. Anyone in the industry will tell you that the best towels are made from long-staple Egyptian cotton. "True Egyptian cotton is grown only in Egypt, and the conditions there lend themselves to producing the longest and finest staples," says George Matouk Jr., president of fine-linen purveyor John Matouk & Co. Inc.

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What this means to the consumer is a softer, more absorbent towel. "Long-staple cottons are the best because they don't have to be twisted together so many times and so tightly to make yarn. The more twisting that happens, the harder it is for water to be absorbed by the cotton and the rougher and less fluffy the terry loops will be," says Matouk. In fact, an industry buzzword you'll be seeing more of is "zero-twist" yarns, a recent technical innovation that makes an incredibly light, soft and thirsty towel, says Matouk. Other quality towels are made from Brazilian, Turkish or even Supima (American-grown) cotton, but the keyword is cotton - never synthetic.

Beyond that, the rest is up to you. "Buy a towel that feels good to you," says Matouk. "Some people love an extremely soft towel; others want more texture. Don't buy on brand alone. Feel it first and find one that you will be comfortable with every day when you get out of the shower." Unfortunately, that's not always as easy as it sounds. For one thing, some manufacturers coat towels with sizing to achieve the silky feel some consumers are after. Not only does this sizing repel water, it also dissipates after a few washings, leaving you with a coarser towel than what you originally bought.

And contrary to what many people believe, a thicker towel does not mean a better towel, especially when you consider that they take up more shelf space, become heavy when wet, and take longer to dry.

Terry vs. velour

"What makes a towel good is largely a matter of personal preference," says Jennifer Marks, editor-in-chief of industry publication Home Textiles Today. "The trend for several years now has run to plush and plump, but there are many people who prefer a towel with what the industry refers to as a 'drier hand,' " meaning a more absorbent feel. For some people, this need is met with a terrycloth towel, which is made from large loops of yarn that enhance its drying ability. (The more loops, the greater the drying power.) If you go this route, look for tightly woven loops that stand up straight and are dense enough that you don't see the base of the towel. Others prefer the softer look and feel of a velour towel, which is created by a shearing process that removes part of the terry and shortens the fabric pile. Keep in mind that these shorter loops result in a slightly less absorbent towel.

If absorbency is your main concern, knowing that information will help you choose the right towel, since it's difficult to gauge by look and feel alone. "Unless you are comfortable spilling a bottle of water 'accidentally' on all the towels in the store to see which absorb the best, it is difficult to test for absorbency," says Matouk. "If you buy towels from a top-quality store, you can be sure they won't carry a towel that doesn't absorb water well."

If you have the means to be so luxuriously on the safe side, you can find superior towels at stores like Yves Delorme (Burlingame, Los Altos and Menlo Park); Cover Story (Los Altos); The Maids' Quarters (Los Gatos); Misto Lino (Danville) or Frette, Scheuer Linens, Sue Fisher King, and Haute Home Linens (all in San Francisco). Highend brands include Abyss, Carrara, Sferra, Matouk, Anichini, SDH, Frette and Espalma.

The price of luxury

Of course, you need to be prepared to absorb the higher cost. At The Maids' Quarters, a typical ensemble -- which includes a bath towel, a hand towel and a wash cloth - adds up to about $115. Most people purchase at least two to four sets of the same towel at a time to allow for everyday use and laundry backups. (To be sure, the ultra-luxe, pretty, embellished or embroidered "for company only" towels run higher.) But it's worth the investment, as with proper care (see sidebar), these towels should last about five years, says Debbie Walker, manager of The Maids' Quarters. "No matter how you wash them, they come out the same all the time due to the quality of the cotton," she says. "They don't get flat, their longevity is much greater and they're very absorbent."

That's not to say you can't get quality towels at home-goods giants or department stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Anna's Linens, JCPenney, Macy's or Kohl's. Such stores carry long-recognized names like Martex, Springmaid, Utica, Royal Velvet and Cannon, all venerable "big brands" in the linen industry. Such stores also carry designer lines like Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger - "good, well-made towels," according to Marks. "Other brands like Nicole Miller, Liz Claiborne, Laura Ashley Home, are constructed to meet the price-point demands of the retailers that carry those brands as exclusives," she says. In other words, the old "you get what you pay for" adage most definitely applies here.

"Generally speaking, price matters," says Matouk. "Fine cotton costs the same amount whether you are making something for Target or for the corner linen store. Inexpensive towels must have less expensive cotton in them." Think about how annoying that would be when you step out of the shower on a cold winter morning.

Towel tips

With proper care, your everyday towels should last around five years or longer. Manufacturers recommend the following tips:

  • Never wash towels with rough materials such as denim, which will break down the soft fibers. 
  • Launder frequently with soft water and detergent. To ensure proper sanitation, you can wash in hot water with a coldwater rinse. 
  • Do not use bleach, especially on colored towels. 
  • Do not use fabric softeners, which contain silicones that will make the towels repel water. 
  • To maintain fullness, shake wet towels before putting them in the dryer and fluff again upon removal. 
  • Never allow acne medicines, makeup removers or other facial products that contain bleach alternatives to touch your towels. Such products will act like bleach and discolor your towels.

Resources

Cover Story
650.948.4395 (Los Altos)

Frette
415.981.9504 (San Francisco)

Haute Home Linens
415.674.0561 (San Francisco)

The Maids' Quarters
408.395.1980 (Los Gatos)

Misto Lino
925.837.6575 (Danville)

Scheuer Linens
415.392.2813 (San Francisco)

Sue Fisher King
888.811.7276 (San Francisco)

Yves Delorme
650.342.6767 (Burlingame)
650.917.9183 (Los Altos)
650.324.3502 (Menlo Park)