The Shop

How to Buy Towels Like a Towel Sommelier

Yep, it's a thing.

June 18, 2019
Photo by Ren Fuller

When you hear the word “sommelier,” you probably immediately think of wine—you know, that person at the nice restaurant who helps you select a glass or bottle that’s just right.

What you probably don’t think of is towels.

Enter Imabari, Japan, a city so dedicated to excellence in towel manufacturing that it’s home to over 200 factories, more than 60% of Japan’s towels, and a towel sommelier program.

Founded in 2007 on the desire to create a more thoughtful culture around towel shopping, the Imabari Towel Industrial Assosciation’s training program recognizes the mass-produced, everyday nature of these products—and how that can lead to uninformed, uninspired decision making. Successful candidates walk away with a breadth of knowledge on a towel’s production lifespan (think sourcing, weaving, dying, and more) and have been prepped to carefully consider a customer’s needs, facilitating smarter shopping.

But becoming a towel sommelier isn’t easy: Passing the final exam requires a score of 80% or higher—a standard only about 50% of recent students were able to meet.

If you’re anything like me, you hadn’t heard of towel sommeliers, but the concept of making not five-star purchases resonated. It goes something like this: You’re at the store, gazing aimlessing at a rainbow of fluffy cotton. You reach for the creamy white—the best you can find with the least amount of thought, in the shortest amount of time, at the lowest price point. You might be walking out the door in fifteen minutes, but fast forward to a month later and your new towels are pilling everywhere and flat as a mat.

But what if there were a towel sommelier there to help you? We all know that when you take the time to consider your needs and the full spectrum of what’s available, the objects you buy tend to last longer and bring more joy.

So, the next time you’re in need of new towels, consult yourself like a towel sommelier would, and consider these five points.

1. Purpose

First things first, what’s the towel for? Will it be your post-shower cocoon—or one for the sweet kiddo in your life? Ready to hang from the handle of your oven? Be thrown over your shoulder on a sunny beach day? Once you know what you’re in the market for, you can guide your search toward companies that specialize in that category and read up on certain features you should be looking for.

2. Price Point

Towel sets can quickly add up, but luckily there are plenty of economical options out there. If you know a thing or two about what you’re looking for, it’s easy to make a purchase you love without breaking the bank. Are you looking to invest in a set that will last for a while? Or something more economical that doesn’t sacrifice on quality, but also might need to be replaced in a few years. Answers to these questions will narrow your search even further.

3. Feel & Weave

Cotton is always a good place to start, with different weights being better suited for different purposes. But it’s not all soft, textured cotton out there—there are lots of fish in the sea. You might try a waffle weave, for instance. Or how about an organic cotton, or one mixed with linen? Remember: Fluffy, thick towels tend to be more absorbent but take longer to dry, where as light, thin towels are usually quick-drying but best for easy tasks like whisking away a small puddle of spilled liquid (hello, kitchen towels).

Seeking softness, absorbency, and timely drying? You might go for a zero-twist towel. Made of high-quality and naturally soft, strong fibers, the yarns require no twisting—a process that gives weaker towel fibers more strength, but can impact their ability to absorb and dry.

Our most sage piece of advice? Read the product details to find out more about the fabric, manufacturing process, and washing instructions. Some towels, for instance, won’t become soft and absorbent until they have been washed a few times. If you’re shopping online, this section will be your North Star.

4. Color and Pattern

Embrace your personal style, but keep consistency in mind. Where will the towels live in your home? Paint a mental picture of the space they’ll occupy—or better yet, stand inside and do a bit of eye yoga. What colors and patterns do you see? Towel sommeliers suggest matching or going with complementary neutrals that won’t clash and will make it through any major decor changes. Creamy whites, greys, or caramels have a soothing, tranquil effect (think spa vibes). But if you’re into bright, mismatched colors or patterns, there’s no need to stray—stick to that framework by adding to the mix.

5. Size & Volume

While many makers offer one size only—typically about 25-inches wide and 50-inches long—it’s common for sizing to vary from maker to maker by about ten inches, so you might want to shop around and do a bit of comparative analysis. Read the sizing available and go from there. If you’re looking for a set that ranges from small, child-sized towels to large bath sheets, you might have to search for a maker that produces that range.

At the end of the day, it’s a little bit research, a little bit intuition. While you might not be approaching your purchase with the same depth of knowledge as an actual sommelier, if you follow these guidelines, you’ll still be a more informed consumer than most. And how sweet to have the results of your labor be so plush and cozy?

Got any tricks for picking the best towels out there? Share them in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Emily Kochman

Written by: Emily Kochman

Food52 Community Experience Manager