Shopping for towels can be difficult, especially when you’re looking for something different but still reliable and long-lasting. Japanese towels are consistently rated amongst the best towels in the world, but industry jargon and lack of transparency can make them tricky to navigate for beginners. Here is our guide to picking the perfect Japanese towel, from the most absorbent fabrics to the craftsmanship details to look for.
Elements of the Perfect Towel
Before diving into the details, let’s imagine what most would consider to be the perfect towel. The perfect towel means different things to different people and may depend on your personal preferences and aesthetic taste. Regardless, there are some standards a high-quality towel should adhere to. A high-quality towel should always:
- Wick water away from your body and unto itself without becoming excessively wet and heavy (Japanese standards require that a towel sink completely in five seconds or less when placed in water, both when new and after 3 washes).
- Feel comfortable on the skin (whatever that means to you).
- Dry quickly so it’s ready to perform the next time you need it.
- Pack away easily without taking up too much room.
- Fit seamlessly with your decor and last for years to come.
- A good-quality towel should never: dry so slowly that it develops a mildewy scent, unravel or snag, shrink in the wash, or tear at the edges.
The Japanese Difference
Size - Like Turkish towels, Japanese towels are generally lightweight and thin, but unlike the long, shawl-like Turkish styles, Japanese towels are traditionally compact. Because of their amazing absorbency, you’ll find you won’t need as much towel as you think you do.
Imabari - Most towel manufacturers in Japan are based in the island region of Imabari, where towel-making has been the regional specialty for over 200 years. Imabari is home to over 100 textile factories that produce approximately 60% of Japan’s towels. At Morihata, we work with manufacturers whose slow weaving looms still produce Japanese towels the traditional way.
Process - Each towel is gently woven on traditional, low-speed machines to maintain the integrity of the thread and achieve a level of softness that modern machines cannot produce. Unlike heavily processed towels, which use chemicals and softeners to achieve their coloring, the primarily neutral towels in our collection are dyed with few chemicals to conserve the cotton’s natural softness. The towels are then carefully washed with large quantities of fresh spring water from the melted snow of Mt. Ishizuchi, ensuring every thread is free from impurities. Mt. Izuchi water is low in iron and heavy metals, which makes for remarkably soft water. This gives towels a pristine, fluffy finish without the use of softeners or bleaches. The result is a quick-drying, highly engineered towel that is perfect for travel, daily use, and small apartment living.
Cultural Significance - Towels play an integral part in Japanese culture. From oshibori- the hand towels offered to guests before eating- to their longstanding bath house (sento or onsen) culture the humble towel is a symbol of civility and cleanliness.
Japanese Towel Sizing
Washcloth - A small, typically square towel, used in and out of the shower for washing and drying hands, body, and face.
Hand Towel - An elongated everyday towel that is ideal for the kitchen or to dry hands and hair.
Compact Bath Towel - A universal all-purpose towel to dry the body after a shower or a bath. The compact construction of Japanese towels is designed to dry off the body and pair with a bathrobe.
Bath Towel - A large towel to dry and cover the body; in Japanese towel standards this is the closest size to the typical American towel.
Cotton is one of the most popular and versatile natural fibers in the world. It is esteemed for its comfortable softness, natural absorbency, and breathability. The best towels are made from long staple or extra-long staple (ELS) cotton, which produces smooth, strong threads that are both soft on the skin and resistant to tears. Long staple fibers range from 1⅛ to 1¼ inches, while ELS fibers are 1⅜ inches or longer, resulting in a flexible textile and a long-lasting towel.
How it’s Made: The highest quality towels are made from combed cotton, which is combed to remove impurities, short threads, and debris left over from manufacturing. This process ensures that only the strongest and longest threads are woven into the towel, and creates fine, long-lasting fibers that are softer and more compact than regular cotton. Because combing is an extra step that requires a careful eye for quality, combed cotton makes an ideal material for products that come into close contact with skin (such as towels and bedding). The leftover fibers are twisted together into a yarn, which is subsequently woven into cotton.
Best Suited For: Bath Towels, Washcloths, Face Towels
See also: Organic cotton, which is cotton that is grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers to minimize a textile’s carbon footprint. These fabrics are dyed with gentle, plant-based or ecologically-friendly dyes for minimal environmental impact. Though organic cotton towels have enjoyed a rise in popularity in recent years, the usage of organic cotton is not necessarily a marker of quality, but rather of environmental responsibility.
Shankar 6: Yoshii towels are woven from “Shankar 6” cotton, which is a high-quality cotton of medium length native to Western India. Shankar 6 cotton is harvested by hand to preserve the plant’s natural strength and quality, which is often damaged by machine harvesting. Hand-harvesting is environmentally-friendly since it allows the company to tend its fields naturally rather than using the defoliants favored by the automated harvesting industry.
While it takes a approximately 1 kg of cotton to make one standard Japanese bath towel, Yoshii towels use three times that amount to increase softness and resiliency. Visible impurities are removed by hand before transferring the bundle into a machine for combing. This intensive process was developed specifically by Yoshii’s partner facility to ensure purity.
Linen varies from cotton in that linen is thicker and its fibers have variable lengths, most of which are very long. Lengthy threads make for strong fibers, which in turn result in a long-lasting towel. Linen towels feel cooler to the touch and are valued for their absorbency and freshness in hot weather. Unlike cotton, it is able to absorb a high amount of moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp on the skin. Linen is also one of the few fabrics that are stronger when wet than when dry. Since the fibers do not stretch, linen’s smooth, almost coarse texture resists damage from abrasion and is naturally pill and lint-free. Linen gets softer the more it is washed, though it wrinkles easily due to the fabric’s poor elasticity. Long-lasting and environmentally friendly, it is one of the most elegant and durable fabrics.
How it’s Made: Linen is made from flax plant fibers, which are fully biodegradable when untreated and undyed. Linen is laborious to make: the flax is hand-harvested, dried, combed, and woven into threads. The process yields strong fibers that are naturally moth and carpet bug-resistant.
Best Suited For: Kitchen towels, summer towel, washcloths and scrub towels.
Ramie is a vegetable fiber beloved for its length and toughness. Like linen, its fibers are insect-resistant and are stronger when wet, making it an ideal material for a towel. Smooth and silky, ramie holds its shape well and resists wrinkling and shrinking. Ramie can also withstand higher temperatures during laundering, which helps kill bacteria more effectively than gentle washes.
How It’s Made: As one of the oldest fiber crops, ramie has been cultivated for over six thousand years and can only be harvested two to six times a year depending on growing conditions. Despite its strength, ramie can be expensive to manufacture due to its lengthy cultivation process and difficult natural fiber weaving.
Best Suited For: Kitchen towels, summer towel.
Terry cloth features many small loops of cotton yarn (known as pile) that extend from the weave to absorb extra moisture. Towels made from 100% cotton terry deliver a comprehensive combination of absorbency, softness, and durability all in one. Terry may not be suited for drying dishes or a countertop, as the looped yarn can sometimes produce a small amount of lint. To prevent this, many of our hand towels feature two sides: a smooth chambray or cotton front to dry dishes, and a terry looped back for drying your hands.
A chambray is a plain weave fabric made from cotton and woven with a colored yarn in the warp (lengthwise thread) and a white yarn in the weft (vertical thread). A chambray fabric will have a subtle criss-cross effect, not unlike a very small checkerboard, on its surface. The effect is similar to denim, though the weight is much lighter. Chambray’s tightly knit fibers absorb moisture quickly without wrinkling the smooth surface of the towel. Commonly used in work shirts and featherweight summer dresses, chambray is an ideal middle point between casual and polished.
Commonly found in European spas and hotels, waffle weaves have been gaining popularity in the U.S. Waffle weaves are woven on looms for durability and long-lasting quality. A waffle weave will form small honeycomb pockets that expand the towel’s surface area, making it able to absorb more moisture than a flat towel of the same size. The waffle crevices allow air to circulate easily through the towel, which helps the towel dry approximately 40% faster than terry. The airy texture allows them to dry folded without developing a mildewy scent.
A lattice weave is a delicately knit cotton that is interlaced with a systematic and repetitive criss-cross pattern. Similar to our waffle towels, lattice-woven towels feature small honeycomb pockets that absorb moisture from the skin, though this fabric lays flat and tends to be thinner than your standard plush waffle weave. The result is a beautifully intricate weave that is easy to pack away even in the smallest of living spaces. The tight artisanal texture is woven on looms for durability and strength.
Ribbing is traditionally associated with athletic garments and its classic vertically ridged texture contains effective performance features. The raised ridges amplify a towel’s surface area, making the towel highly absorbent and quick-drying. The thin, lightweight construction also makes it an ideal style for travel and gym bag-friendly towels.
Gauze is a thin, translucent fabric with a loose open weave. It is the most lightweight of cottons, with a delicate look that is juxtaposed by the strength of its fibers. For all its weightlessness, gauze’s layered construction make it a deceptively strong fabric. Japanese gauze is made by stitching several layers of super thin gauze into one textile, which creates inner air pockets. The loose weave allows air to circulate within the fabric and absorb moisture layer by layer. Gauze gets softer with every wash, making it a long-lasting weave that you can continue to enjoy for much longer than traditional terry towels. It feels plush, soft, and comfortable on the skin, and is often used in the construction of baby clothes and towels for those with sensitive skin.
As with any industry, finding the best towels requires learning the language of its manufacturers. Here are the most important industry terms to keep in mind while you shop.
Many towels represent fabric weight with a GSM (grams per square meter) number. Towels with a high GSM are plush and thick, while towels with a lower GSM are thinner and more lightweight. Although Japanese towels do not use this system, their traditionally thin construction points to a lower GSM than most Western towels. A low GSM number does not necessarily reflect negatively on a towel’s absorbency, but rather serves as a marker that determines which kind of cotton was used in the manufacturing of the towel. Ultimately, it is the quality of the cotton, the brand’s individual manufacturing process, and the towel’s design that best determines its absorbency.
Commonly found in Western towels, cotton that is “ring spun” refers to a specific spinning process that creates finer, smoother yarns from long-staple fibers. Compared to regular cotton, ring-spun cotton fibers are spun rather than twisted, resulting in a tighter, strong yarn that feels heavier to the touch. Ring-spun fibers make excellent thick towels, but since Japanese towels are traditionally slim, the technique is largely unused by Imabari manufacturers.
Zero and Low-Twist Cotton
Unlike ring-spun cotton, zero-twist cotton fibers are not twisted at all before they’re woven. Cotton fibers are traditionally twisted to add strength, but long-staple cotton can afford to minimize or skip this step entirely because their fibers are naturally strong. A lower twist is a marker of high-quality cotton, signifying a towel that is fluffier, retains more surface area, and absorbs more moisture.
Tips for Shopping for the Perfect Towel
- A soft towel in the store does not necessarily equal a soft towel in the home. Most commercial manufacturers add softeners during finishing so towels will feel nice and velvety in the store. After a few washings, however, you may end up with a rougher towel than you had bargained for.
- Use your non-dominant hand to feel and touch towels, as it’s less rough and can pick up the softness and feel much better than a hand that is acclimated to touching many things.
- A dark towel is more representative of the towel’s softness than a lighter one, as they typically use fewer softeners and paint a realistic picture of what your towel will feel like after continuous use.
- Double-turned and stitched edges are a sign of craftsmanship. This reinforcement reduces fraying, which in turn increases longevity.
- Avoid towels with highly saturated colors, as they use so much dye that they don’t absorb the softeners and can turn after only a few washes. Instead, try neutral colors or soft pastels, which require fewer dyes.