KANSAS CITY, Mo. – When you step out of the shower dripping wet, how well does your towel really perform? Sure, a plush towel feels soft and warm. But five minutes later you’re still wet. Or, at least, not as dry as you could be. There’s a better solution, and the Europeans and Japanese have figured it out. Consumers in many industrialized countries prefer lightweight, waffle weave towels. Bed and bath retailers say certain customers are beginning to ask about the thin, textured towels, especially for use at the pool or in a sauna. But for the most part, Americans are hooked on terry loops.

“It’s another example of the “bigger is better’ way of thinking in the U.S.,” said Ursula Terrasi, owner of Scandia Down in Kansas City and a native of Italy. “Americans want these huge beds that you need a stepping stool to get into, and they think towels should be big and fat.”

What’s the appeal? Terrasi says many Europeans prefer to air dry their laundry rather than use electric dryers. Air drying heavy plush towels just isn’t feasible.

Lisa Payne, co-owner of Annabelles in Overland Park, Kan., uses waffle weave towels herself, but she has little luck swaying customers.

Even if someone has just put in a spa, she said, “they want the fattest towels they can get.” The exception, she said, is people who have traveled overseas and used waffle weave towels in another country.

Designer Eric Negrete of Kansas City discovered waffle weave towels at a friend’s house in Southern California. Negrete loves the way they absorb moisture, but that’s not the reason he bought a set when he moved from a large house to a condo. “I threw away the thick towels because my linen closet was so small,” he said.

You might have encountered waffle weave towels at a day spa. Many of them use waffle weave towels and robes because they are so absorbent.

In the United States, the only waffle weave bath towels widely available are manufactured in Europe. They cost from $24 for a hand towel to $50 or more for a bath sheet.

There is a reason the towels from makers such as Le Jacquard Francais, Yves Delorme, Bellora and SDH are more expensive than American-made towels. Labor costs for milling and weaving are higher in Europe, where more traditional manufacturing methods are employed. Much of the expense lies in the finishing details, as well. They do not use cost-saving techniques such as using the selvage (woven edge) of the fabric as the side of a towel rather than finished seams.

Though by no means cheap, European waffle weave towels cost less than the high-end plush terry towels favored by many American consumers. For example, Yves Delorme waffle weave bath sheets retail for about $60, while the company’s finest plush towels sell for about $86.

For now, there is no inexpensive waffle-weave alternative. Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target don’t offer waffle-weave bath towels. The best option if you want to stay on budget and switch to lighter, spa-like towels is to look for thin, lightweight terry towels with long loops.

But the technology to make less expensive, functional waffle weave bath towels is out there. At the New York Home Textiles Show in October, several Japanese makers exhibited new waffle weave towels.

The Japanese towels have a more casual look than the elegant, traditional European waffle weave. But representatives of several companies at the show said they sell their waffle weave towels only in Japan because the mass market in the United States prefers terry.

“Americans like a heavy, big towel,” said Miho Imoto, a sales representative for Kontex, a Japanese towel maker. “Japanese (people) like a light and soft towel. They really care about quality. The standard is that any bath towel has to dry quickly.”

Imoto said her company is easing into the American market with terry baby towels and blankets, and if they are successful, the next step would be to find buyers for the company’s “regular” (waffle weave) bath towels.

Some U.S. consumers are familiar with waffle weave technology in specialty products. The Aquis hair drying towel ($18 at www.amazon.com) and the Micro Fiber Drying Towel ($27 at www.griotsgarage.com) both are made of waffle-woven microfiber, however, not cotton. But the secret of their absorbency is the same as with waffle-woven towels: The honeycombed, highly textured weave creates more surface area for soaking up water.

Even if waffle weave towels are slow to take off, they may be exerting an influence on terry towels. The newest lines of some luxury terry towels are thinner and softer than in years past, says Barbara Abrass, buyer for F&B Specialty Linens in St. Paul, Minn.

Another towel trend that is beginning to take hold is blends of wood fibers and cotton. Just like clothing made with Tencel, a product called Legna (the Italian word for “wood”) made in Italy by SDH feels noticeably softer than 100 percent cotton.

Legna towels are 70 percent wood fiber and 30 percent Egyptian cotton, but the loops are 100 percent wood fiber.

Besides the efficiency of being more absorbent and drying faster and taking up less room in the washer and dryer, designers like the way the thinner towels stack up, literally. Whether Legna or waffle weave, thinner towels have a svelte look and lack the visual bulk of plush terry.



BATH TOWEL CARE

-Launder towels by themselves, if possible. Don’t wash them with items that have fabric fasteners, hooks or zippers, which can damage fibers.

-Wash towels in cold water with liquid detergent; use half the recommended amount. Stiffness in towels is often the result of detergent that doesn’t get completely rinsed out.

-Use a gentle detergent such as Ivory or Dreft. Avoid products that contain bleach, bleach alternative or optical brighteners.

-Skip the fabric softener. Liquid softeners and dryer sheets coat the fibers, making them less absorbent.

-Tumble dry towels on low heat; do not overdry.

Sources: Ursula Terrasi, Lisa Payne



TOWEL TERMS

Legna: The Italian word for “wood,” and a brand of sheets, towels and other textile products made from Italian beechwood by the California company SDH. The products are similar to clothing made with Tencel.

Jacquard: Fabric with a reversible design woven in.

Terry: Fabric with woven loops.

Velour: Terry whose loops have been sheared off on one side.

Waffle weave: Also called “honeycomb,” this method of weaving produces a textured finish that is extremely absorbent.



(c) 2005, The Kansas City Star.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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AP-NY-02-10-05 0625EST



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