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A towel is a piece of absorbent fabric whose chief use is for drying objects, by drawing moisture (usually water) from the object, into the fabric, through direct contact, with either a blotting or rubbing motion.

Types of towels

  • A bath towel is used for drying one's body after bathing or showering. It is typically rectangular, with a size somewhere around 30"×60" (75×150 cm).
  • A beach towel is usually a little bit larger than 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 lay on. Beach towels often have colourful patterns printed or woven into them.
  • A hand towel is significantly smaller than a bath towel (perhaps 30x60 cm), and is used for drying one's hands after washing them.
  • 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 wall-mounted horizontal rod a little longer than the width of the roll, or in an alternative type of hanger that has indentations on ears, the indentations fitting into the ends of the paper towel roll. Paper towels can also be found as individual folded sheets.

Confusingly, the term kitchen towel can refer to a dish towel or to a paper towel, the latter usage being primarily British.

Alternative uses

Fibres in a tea towel
Fibres in a tea towel

Towels are often used for purposes other than drying things.

  • Wrapped around one's body, a towel acts as a make-shift garment (also for changing clothes on the beach etc.).
  • Removing sand from the body or things on a sandy beach.
  • To sit, lay and stand on, to avoid direct contact with the ground, rock, chair, etc. This may be to avoid getting dirty or sandy, because it is more comfortable, and in the case of partial or full nudity, to avoid making the chair dirty.
  • In order to prepare the skin for shaving, barbers use steamed towels.
  • To reserve seats, for example sunloungers, by the side of swimming pools or similar locations, and this is a source of amusement to some, and annoyance to others.

Cultural significance

Towels have long been thought of as nothing more than utilitarian objects that everybody has, but about which nobody really thinks twice. Douglas Adams challenged this when The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy attained cult status in the 1980s. He described his characters travelling around his universe, often as hitchhikers, finding that towels were the most "massively useful" objects they could carry. The fictitious time/space traveller and Guide Researcher Ford Prefect uses the idiom "a guy who always knows where his towel is" to mean someone generally alert and aware, someone who in 1960s Earth slang might have called "with it".

In Adams' universe a hitchhiker who carries a towel can always find a ride because if someone is carrying a towel it is assumed (however illogically) that they also have a toothbrush, a bathroom kit, shower shoes, hair nets, maps, a toolbox, tickets to the opera, finely lapped silicone wafers, a set of encyclopedias, an astonishing array of credit cards, travellers checks etc. For this reason hitchhikers were directed by the Guide to always carry a towel to maintain the appearance that they would make a good guest.

In addition a towel can be used as a hammock, a blanket, a cape. The corners of the towel can be soaked in vitamins, and useful bits of wire can be woven into the towel. The corners of a towel can also be tied together to make a bag. If wet, the towel can even be used in melée combat.

Fans of Adams' books have seized on this idea, and towels are now considered a symbol of one's devotion to the Hitchhiker books, radio series, TV series, website, etc.

Last updated: 02-08-2005 14:27:49
Last updated: 02-27-2005 18:47:33