Secret to keeping your towels fresh, sanitary, matching

My five houseguests are due any minute. The guest rooms are ready except for towels. I head confidently to the linen closet. One of the few things I pride myself on is that I tie sets of sheets and towels in ribbons, precisely so I can easily retrieve full, coordinated packages for guests.

I open the closet. It's been ransacked! Call the police! Ribbons are unfastened. Once-nicely-folded towels are shoved in wads on shelves, frayed and faded.

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Don't count on color towels for bathroom pizzazz. Buy ones you love. In white.

Apparently, my ribbon system didn't prevent certain members of my family from having their way with these sets. These hoodlums have helped themselves to a pillowcase here, a face towel there. These items go in gym bags, on sleepovers, and never return.

I try to patch together a few complete sets. But when I find a bath towel, a face towel and a washcloth that were a family, no pieces match. Colors have taken detours, disavowing their relations. I can't give these towels to my friends.

Ding-dong. Aaach!

"I'm sorry about the towels," I say when I hand my friend, who has arrived with her husband and three children, a scrap pile of terry cloth not fit to wash the car.

"Sorry?"

"I had no idea such degeneration had occurred in my linen closet."

"Same thing happened to me," she says, reminding me why I love girlfriends. "I got these lovely green towels for the whole house, but after a few washings they turned different shades. I have to get all new ones."

I tell her how my teenager turned her towels into a tie-dye project with skin products. (Heads up, parents: Benzoyl peroxide and color fabrics don't mix.) Her younger sister used her towels to remove purple nail polish.

The towel talk made me feel better, not so alone. Then I started investigating. A towel expert divulged that stores push color towels because they sell more. Color is a cheap, short-term design thrill for people seeking easy change. But like romance, dreams and skin tone, color fades, making towels look tired. Color trends change, so consumers keep buying new ones, ushering out mauve for persimmon.

I call my friend, now back at her home with its faded towels. I'm bursting with news: "We're victims of the color trap!" I exclaim. "The only winners are towel companies!"

"So what's the answer?"

"White!"

I tick off the virtues: White doesn't fade, never goes out of date, and goes with everything. White towels are the stuff of fine hotels. They're likely more sanitary because you can bleach and scald them, which makes you wonder what color towels are hiding.

If you buy plain white towels, when the new puppy uses the hand towel as a teething toy, you can pull a piece from another set, and it will match.

"So we need to throw in our towels," my friend says.

"And buy white," I say.

"The color of surrender."

"The color of smart."

One home-design mantra I try to live by (not always successfully) is this: Buy it once, buy it right. That means not clogging my cupboards with towels that just keep looking worse. To buy towels you love that will last:

Don't rely on them to provide bathroom pizzazz. People often buy color towels to jazz up a bathroom, but towels shouldn't be the focal point, anymore than toilet paper should be. Add drama with wall color, fixtures, art, mirror frames and accessories. Let the towels be white.

Look for high-grade combed cotton - fabric is the key to function. Avoid synthetics. Higher-grade cottons (Egyptian, Supima, Turkish) have a long staple, or fiber, so they last longer and absorb more. Combed cotton has had the shorter threads removed, so towels don't pill or cover you with lint. Edges should be double-turned and double-stitched to prevent fraying.

Remember: Dense loops equal thirsty towels. Look for tightly woven loops that stand up straight like grass; you shouldn't see the base of the towel. Velour towels feel nice, but aren't as thirsty as terry cloth.

Don't be a sucker for softness. Manufacturers know a lot of people buy towels based on how they feel, so they coat them with sizing that makes them silky to the touch. Sizing repels water, however, and just pushes it around. After several washings, the sizing comes out - a good thing for absorbency, but the towels will feel coarser, leaving you feeling deceived. Adding vinegar (never fabric softener) to the rinse cycle helps cut through sizing.

Avoid really thick towels - they get heavy, take longer to dry, and hog shelf space. My rule: A towel shouldn't be so thick you can't dry inside your ears.

Cover your bottom line: When buying bath towels, open them for size. If you're taller or larger than average, you may prefer a bath sheet.

Go ahead and display fancy towels - just don't use them. I have trophy towels - spice-colored, satin-embellished - in our master bath, where my husband is under strict orders not to touch them. For everyday, we use white.


Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo).