Bath towels are such an essential part of our lives that sometimes we don't give them much thought. But whether they're just for showers or for show, these bathroom staples are available in a bewildering array of materials, sizes and prints. Finding the right style and feel — not too thin, big enough for the job — can be a challenge.
For insight into the making of a towel, look to the label for key words that describe special weaves, cuts and yarns.
The word combed, for instance, refers to the combing of yarns to create straight fibers for a stronger, softer fabric. "Two-ply" means that double the usual amount of yarn was used to produce the fabric, creating a weightier feel and increasing absorbency and durability.
When it comes to fabric, terry cloth has looped threads across the surface: the denser the loops, the more absorbent the fabric. In a velour texture, those loops are cut for a flatter, smoother surface.
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Super-absorbent cotton has long been the favorite fabric. Long-fibered Egyptian cottons and Pima varieties, grown in the American Southwest and South America, are preferred for their softness. Other materials include bamboo silk and man-made microfiber. Organic towels made of pesticide-free fabric and dyes are easier than ever to find.
Bath towels can range in size from a 12-by-12-inch washcloth to bath sheets nearly 6 feet long. As a rule, the heavier the towel, the better the quality. Some luxury brands weigh 1.3 pounds or more.
Last year, the Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested two towels each from 55 lines, washing and drying them 25 times. In the process, they came up with some great advice for buying a good towel.
■ The No. 1 rule: Pick up the towel in the store for closer inspection.
■ For a softer towel that lasts and picks up moisture, researchers found that the best bet was 100 percent combed cotton, with its stronger, longer fibers. Look for those words on the label.
■ For softness, don't necessarily trust what you're feeling in the store: Manufacturers often apply softeners that will disappear with a few washes.
■ Look for a dense layer of loops — you should not be able to see the base of the towel — which means more absorbency and higher quality.
■ A great towel will feel heavier than it looks, meaning it has more volume and hence more absorbency.
■ Double-turned, reinforced edges with double stitching are a key to durability. This reinforcement reduces fraying, which will give your towels a long life.
To care for your towels, Good Housekeeping says to check labels before washing. Take heed of warnings of no chlorine bleach, because bleach can weaken fibers over time. Also, leave out the fabric softener, which can add a coating that prevents absorbency.
So what did Good Housekeeping determine were the best towels among those it tested?
Overall best: Macy's Hotel Collection MicroCotton Towels. Through May 15, they are on sale at Macys.com: $5.99 for a washcloth, $22.99 for a bath towel and $39.99 for a bath sheet, depending on which variety you choose.
Best value: Bed, Bath and Beyond's Lasting Color/Pure Performance towels, $3.99 to $5.99. Bedbathandbeyond.com.
Least shrinkage: Pottery Barn's HydroCotton towels, $6 to $19. Potterybarn.com.
Fade-resistent: Peacock Alley's Park Avenue towels, $9.50. Peacockalley.com.
Fastest drying: JC Penney's Linden Street Quick-Dri towels, $3 to $10, or $20 for a six-piece set. JCP.com.