A towel is a piece of absorbentfabric or paper used for drying or wiping. It draws moisture through direct contact, often using a blotting or a rubbing motion. Common household textile towels are made from cotton, rayon, bamboo, non-woven fibers, and a few other materials.
According to Middle Ages archeological studies, "... closely held personal items included the ever present knife and a towel." However, the invention of the towel is commonly associated with the city of Bursa, Turkey, in the 17th century. These Turkish towels began as a flat, woven piece of cotton or linen called a pestamel, often hand-embroidered. Long enough to wrap around the body, pestamel were originally fairly narrow, but are now wider and commonly measure 90 by 170 centimetres (35 in × 67 in). Pestamel were used in Turkish baths as they stayed light when wet and were very absorbent.
As the Ottoman Empire grew, so did the use of the towel. Weavers were asked to embroider more elaborate designs, aided by their knowledge of carpet-weaving. By the 18th century, towels began to feature loops sticking up from the pile of the material. These looped towels became known as havly; over time, this word has changed to havlu, the Turkish word for towel, and means ‘with loops’. Towels didn't become affordable until the 19th century, with the cotton trade and industrialization. With mechanization, cotton terry-towelling became available by the yard as well as being stocked in shops as pre-made towels.
Now, towels are available in a variety of sizes, materials and designs. Some hotels which provide towel and bath robes embed washable RFID tags into their linens to deter theft.
A bath towel is used for drying the body when it is wet, such as after bathing or showering. It is typically rectangular, with a typical size around 30 in × 60 in (76 cm × 152 cm).
A beach towel is usually a little bit larger a bath towel. Although it is often used for drying off after being in the water, its chief purpose is to provide a surface to lie on. They are also worn for privacy while changing clothes in a public area, and for wiping sand from the body or objects. Beach towels often have colorful patterns.
A foot towel is a small, rectangular towel which, in the absence of a rug, carpet or bathroom mat, is placed on the bathroom floor to stand on after finishing a shower or bath.
A hand towel is significantly smaller than a bath towel (perhaps 12 in × 24 in (30 cm × 61 cm)), and is used for drying the hands after washing them.
An oven towel or confectioner's mitten is a multipurpose household towel used for a kitchen or shop applications. The term came into use within Irish communities after a textile mogul, Owen Valley, created the line based on his own towel experiences.
A paper towel is a piece of paper that can be used once as a towel and then be disposed of. A perforated roll of paper towels is normally mounted on a rod a little longer than the width of the roll, or in an alternative type of hanger that has protrusions on ears, the protrusions fitting into the ends of the paper towel roll. Paper towels can also be found packaged like facial tissues, as individual folded sheets.
A disposable towel (or non-woven towel) is a towel intended for a single user, but not necessarily for a single use, as it can be reused but not washed. It is often made of non-woven fibers, and popular for the hospital, hotel, geriatric and salon or beauty industries because it guarantees cleanliness and hygiene every time.
A show towel is a bath or hand towel that has had trim—such as satin, lace or linen stitched onto it, or embroidery done on it—mainly to simply "look nice". They are used to add a decorative touch—usually to a bathroom—most commonly in the USA. They are generally not to be used to for drying, as regular washing ruins the added trim, and the towel buckles as well (because the towel usually shrinks differently than the trim).
A sports towel, or (synthetic) chamois, is a towel originally developed for swimmers and divers, favored for its super-absorbent qualities. Sports towels can be wrung out when saturated, leaving the towel able to absorb water again, although not dry. Those qualities, along with their compact nature, have further popularized sports towels amongst general outdoor and athletic enthusiasts. The absorbent material in sports towels may be composed of viscose, PVA or microfiber, with polyester woven in for durability. Some manufacturers incorporate a silver ion or compound treatment into their towels to better inhibit microbial growth and associated odors.
A sweat towel or gym towel, often of similar size to a hand towel, is used during a workout to dry oneself from sweat or make a barrier between the gym machines and the skin. It can also be required in gyms in order to wipe down the machines after use.
The term kitchen towel can refer to either a dish towel or to a paper towel, the latter usage being primarily British.
A tea towel or drying-up cloth (English), or dish towel (American) is a cloth which is used to dry dishes, cutlery, etc., after they have been washed. In 18th century England, a tea towel was a special linen drying cloth used by the mistress of the house to dry her precious and expensive china tea things. Servants were considered too ham-fisted to be trusted with such a delicate job, although housemaids were charged with hand-hemming the woven linen when their main duties were completed. Tea towels have been mass-produced since the Industrial Revolution.
A flannel, wash cloth, washcloth, wash rag, face-washer (Australian) or face cloth is a small square about the width of a hand towel, and is used by wetting, applying soap to the towel, and then using the towel to apply the soap to skin. This increases abrasion, and can remove dead skin cells from the skin more effectively than just manual application and rubbing of soap. In some parts of the world, washing mitts are used for this purpose.
A wet towel (oshibori) is used in Japan to wash the hands before eating. It is often given to customers of an izakaya.
A cloth towel dispenser or continuous cloth towel is a towel manipulated by a series of rollers, used as an alternative to paper towels and hand dryers in public washrooms. These may have a lower environmental impact than paper towels, though concerns over hygiene mean they are not used by some organisations. They can also be used in dangerous "choking games".
A sanitary towel or sanitary napkin is an absorbent item worn by a woman while she is menstruating.
A bar towel is an absorbent, usually small towel used in bars and often given away free as promotional items.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a series of books by Douglas Adams, towels are described as "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have", an example usage being to ward off the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. The fictitious time/space traveller and Guide Researcher Ford Prefect uses the idiom "a frood who really knows where his towel is" to mean someone generally alert and aware. Some of Adams's fans seized on this idea and now use towels as a sign of devotion to the Hitchhiker books, radio series, TV series, website, etc. Towel Day is held each year on May 25th in memory of Adams.