Bath towels are woven pieces of fabric either cotton or cotton-polyester that are used to absorb moisture on the body after bathing. Bath towels are often sold in a set with face towels and wash cloths and are always the largest of the three towels. Bath towels are generally woven with a loop or pile that is soft and absorbent and is thus used to wick the water away from the body. Special looms called dobby looms are used to make this cotton pile.
Bath towels are generally of a single color but may be decorated with machine-sewn embroidery, woven in fancy jacquard patterns (pre-determined computer program driven designs) or even printed in stripes. Since towels are exposed to much water and are washed on hot-water wash settings more frequently than other textiles, printed towels may not retain their pattern very long. Most towels have a two selvage edges or finished woven edges along the sides and are hemmed (cut and sewn down) at the top and bottom. Some toweling manufacturers produce the yarn used for the toweling, weave the towels, dye them, cut and sew hems, and ready them for distribution. Others purchase the yarn already spun from other wholesalers and only weave the toweling.
Until the early nineteenth century, when the textile industry mechanized, bath toweling could be relatively expensive to purchase or time-consuming to create. There is some question how important these sanitary linens were for the average person—after all, bathing was not nearly as universally popular 200 years ago as it is today! Most nine-teenth century toweling that survives is, indeed, toweling probably used behind or on top of the washstand, the piece of furniture that held the wash basin and pitcher with water in the days before indoor plumbing. Much of this toweling was hand-woven, plain-woven natural linen. Fancy ladies' magazines and mail order catalogs feature fancier jacquard-woven colored linen patterns (particularly red and white) but these were more likely to be hand and face cloths. It wasn't until the 1890s that the more soft and absorbent terry cloth replaced the plain linen toweling.
As the cotton industry mechanized in this country, toweling material could be purchased by the yard as well as in finished goods. By the 1890s, an American house-wife could go to the general store or order through the mail either woven, sewn, and hemmed Turkish toweling (terry cloth) or could purchase terry cloth by the 'y'ard, cut it to the appropriate bath towel size her family liked, and hem it herself. A variety of toweling was available—diaper weaves, huck-abacks, "crash" toweling—primarily in cotton as linen was not commercially woven in this country in great quantity by the 1890s. Weaving factories began mass production of terry cloth towels by the end of the nine-teenth century and have been producing them in similar fashion ever since.
Raw materials include cotton or cotton and polyester, depending on the composition of the towel in production. Some towel factories purchase the primary raw material, cotton, in 500 lb (227 kg) bales and spin them with synthetics in order to get the type of yarn they need for production. However, some factories purchase the yarn from a supplier. These yarn spools of cotton-polyester blend yarn is purchased in huge quantities in 7.5 lb (3.4 kg) spools of yarn. A single spool of yarn unravels to 66,000 yd (60,324 m) of thread.
Yarn must be coated or sized in order for it to be woven more easily. One such industry coating contains PVA starch, urea, and wax. Bleaches are generally used to whiten a towel before dyeing it (if it is to be dyed). Again, these bleaches vary depending on the manufacturer, but may include as many as 10 ingredients (some of them proprietary) including hydrogen peroxide, a caustic defoamer, or if the towel is to remain white, an optical brightener to make the white look brighter. Synthetic or chemical dyes, of complex composition, which make towels both colorfast and bright, may also be used.
Most towels are not specially designed in complex patterns. The vast majority is simple terry towels woven on dobby looms with loop piles, sewn edges at top and bottom. Sizes vary as do colors depending on the order. Increasingly, white or stock towels are sent to wholesalers or others to decorate with computer-driven embroidery or decorate with applique fabric or decoration. This occurs in a different location and is often done by another company.
- 1 As mentioned above, some factories spin their own yarn for bath towels. If this is done at the factory, the manufacturer receives huge 500 lb (227 kg) bales of either high or "middling grade" (of medium quality) cotton for conversion into yarn (quality depends on the manufacturer and quality of the towel in production). These bales are broken open by an automated Uniflock machine that nips a bit off the top of each bale, opens it up and then lays it down. The Uniflock opening machine blends the cotton fibers together by repeatedly beating it so impurities fall out or are filtered out (these bales contain many impurities within the raw cotton). The more pure fibers are blown through tubes to a mixing unit where the cotton is blended together before they are spun. Higher quality towels use cotton with fibers that are blended together three times before spinning. In some factories, the cotton is blended with polyester during this blending process.
- 2 The mixed fibers are then blown through tubes to carding machines where revolving cylinders with wire teeth are used to straighten the fibers and continue to remove impurities before spinning. The cotton fibers, while not yet yarn, are shaping up into parallel fibers in preparation for spinning.
- 3 These parallel fibers are then condensed into a sliver—a twisted rope of cotton fibers. These slivers are sent into another machine in which they are blended again and sent between other rollers for straightening. The ultimate goal is long, straight, parallel fibers because they produce stronger yarns. (Stronger yarns require less twisting which also produces strong yarns but makes them less soft and absorbent.) The fibers are wound on a large roll and sent on a cart and fed into the combing machine.
- 4 Fibers are combed here, further straightening the fibers with a finer set of wire teeth than used on the carding machine. Combing removes the shorter fibers, which are coarser and woollier, leaving the finer, longer, silkier cotton fibers for spinning into yarn. Once combed, the fibers are formed into a twisted rope sliver again.
- 5 The slivers travel to roving machines where the fibers are further twisted and straightened and formed into rovings. The roving frame also slightly twists the fibers. The result is a long roving of cotton, which is then wound onto bobbins in the final step before spinning.
- 6 Now the roving is ready for spinning. The bobbin is spun on a ring-spinning machine, which mechanically draws out or pulls the cotton roving out into a single strand. The fibers essentially catch one another to form one continuous thread and twists the thread slightly as it is pulled or spun. Once the yarn is spun, it is automatically wound on large wheels that resemble rounds of cheese when full of thread.
- 7 Warp is longitudinal threads in a piece of woven material that are tightly stretched or warped on a beam. Latitudinal threads called weft or filler are passed under and over the warp to form the fabric. The large spools of just-spun cotton are ready to be warped or wound on a beam that will be inserted into the loom for weaving. If the yarn is purchased, the 7.5 lb (3.4 kg) spools are readied for warping. A warping beam is then warped in which threads are anchored and wrapped to a large beam in hundreds of parallel rows. Different towel widths require different numbers of warp threads.
- 8 These huge beams, full of wrapped warp threads, are placed into a rack that holds up to 12 beams and sized in preparation for weaving. The threads must be sized or stiffened to make the piece easier to weave. PVA starch, urea, and wax are rolled onto and pressed into the yarn. The threads are then run over drying cans—Teflon-coated cans with steam heat emanating from with-in. This helps to dry the warp threads quickly. (1,000 warp ends are pulled over nine cans to dry.) These beams, with coated threads, are now sent to the looms.
- 9 The beams are picked up by a pallet jack or hydraulic lift truck and transported to looms. These looms vary in width but may be as narrow as 85 in (216 cm) or as wide as 153 in (389 cm). (Not surprisingly, the wider the loom, the slower the weaving as it takes longer for weft threads to cross the warp.) The beams are lifted onto the looms mechanically with a warp jack, which can bear the weight and size of the beam.
- 10 Towels are woven on dobby looms, meaning each loom has two sets or warp and thus two warp beams—one warp is called the ground warp and forms the body of the towel and the other is called the pile warp and it produces the terry pile or loop. Each set of warp threads is carefully fed through a set of metal eyes and is attached to a harness. (Harnesses are separate, parallel frames that can change in their vertical relationships to one another.) These harnesses mechanically raise and lower these warp threads so that the weft or filler can be passed between them. The intersection of the warp and weft is woven fabric.
The filler yarn is programmed so that it is loosely laid into the woven fabric. When this loose filler is beaten or pressed into the fabric, the slack is pushed up becoming a little loop.
Shuttles, which carry the filler threads, are truly shot across these large looms at top-speeds—these towel-making looms may have 18 shuttles fired across the warp from a firing cylinder. One shuttle follows right behind the next. As soon as the one shuttle shoots across the warp threads, the shuttle drops down and is transported back to firing cylinder and is shot across again. A typical towel-weaving machine has 350 shuttle insertions in a single minute—nearly six shuttles fired across each second. Thus, towels are woven very quickly on these large mechanized dobby looms. In one small towel-making factory, 250 dozen bath towels can be made in one loom in a single week—and there are 50 looms in the factory.
- 11 Once the toweling is made (it is one long terry cloth roll and has no beginning or end), it is wound on an off-loom take-up reel. It is then transported to bleaching as huge rolls of fabric and put into a water bath with bleaching chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, caustic defoamers, and other proprietary ingredients. All toweling must be dyed pure white before it is dyed any color. The wet toweling laden with chemicals is then subjected to tremendously high temperatures. The heat makes the chemicals react, bleaching the towel. The roll is then washed at least once and as many as three times in a large washer to get all chemicals out of the toweling. The toweling is dried, and if it is to remain white toweling, it is ready to be cut at the top and bottom, lock-stitched sewn, and have a label attached (all of this is done with one machine).
- 12 If it is to be dyed, the large, dried uncut rolls are taken to large vats of chemical dyes, which have proven over time to provide colorfast toweling after extensive residential laundering. After being immersed in the vat, the toweling is removed and pressed between two heavy rollers which forces the dye down into the toweling. A thorough steaming sets the color. The toweling is again steam-dried, fluffed in the drying process, and then the dyed towels are ready for cutting, hemming, and labeling.
Cutting, folding, and packaging
- 13 Final visual inspection of the cut and hemmed towels occurs and they are handfolded and conveyed to packaging, where automatic packaging equipment forms a bag around the towels and UPC labels are attached to the bags. These packaged towels are sent to the stock room, awaiting transport out of the plant.
Towels are rigorously checked for quality control throughout the production process. If yarn is purchased, it is randomly checked for weight and must be the standard established by the company (lighter yarn spools indicate the yarn is thinner than desired and may not make as sturdy toweling). Bleach and dye vats are periodically checked for appropriate chemical constitution.
During the weaving process, some companies pass the cloth over a lighted inspection table. Here the weavers and quality inspectors monitor the towel for weaving imperfections. Slightly unevenly woven towels may be straightened out and touched up. But those that cannot may be labeled "seconds" or imperfect or completely rejected by the company. As in all aspects of the process, visual checks are a key to quality control—all involved in the process understand minimum standards and monitor the product at all times.
Potentially harmful byproducts are often mixed in the water that is used to bleach, wash, and dye the towel fabric. Particularly, the bleaching process includes ingredients (peroxides and other caustics) that cannot be discharged untreated into any water supply. Many toweling factories run their own water treatment plants to insure that the water the plant discharges meets minimum standards for pH, temperature, etc.
Where to Learn More
Montgomery Ward & Co. Spring and Summer 1895 Catalogue and Buyer's Guide. NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 1969.
Tate, Blair. The Warp: A Weaving Reference. Ashville, NC: Lark Books, 1991.
Fieldcrest Cannon. "The Making of Royal Velvet Towels." Unpublished script for a video on towel production. Kannapolis, NC, 1998.