Today is Towel Day, universally recognised as the single most important day of the year for fellow fans of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, when all members of the great following carry their towels in solidarity for the Hitchhiker’s cause; because you should always know where your towel is. You might expect that I would take this opportunity to write a long fan-service tribute to Douglas Adams, the series’ creator, but I already did one of those last year. No, today I turn to the very subject matter of today itself and, indeed, a central theme in much of Adams’ work; towels.
I don’t think I can begin in any better place than to quote the Guide itself on the subject of towels:
“A towel, it [the Guide] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.”
…before going on to talk about the immense psychological value gained by being the kind of frood who always knows where his towel is through whatever horrors the universe may throw at him. However, excellent though the passage is, the relevance of this to our earthly towel-related endeavours is somewhat limited. There is very little need, for example, for a Londoner to protect himself from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of a planet several hundred light-years away, or ability for casual suburbanite to ‘bound across’ many cold moons. Due to the relatively limited advancement of earthly towel technology, some of the advice stated there is not only irrelevant but downright unhelpful; a towel makes for a slow, unwieldy weapon in hand-to-hand combat (a problem only exacerbated once said towel is sopping wet) that can be combatted easily with a well-timed rush if it fails, as is unfortunately likely, to disable one’s opponent in its first strike. And since most towels are made from fabric, rather than ‘solid’ material, the protection they offer against any particularly noxious fumes is minimal at best; OK for keeping out dust and smells, but not much more.
Many of the problems relating to towels and their lack of prevalence in our modern-day existence concerns weight and volume. Your typical bath-towel must, in order to wrap around bodies of all sizes adequately, measure about 0.8 x 1.5m, as well as being able to absorb a good quantity of water with some comfort. In most ‘traditional’ towels, this takes the form of taking a piece of fabric baselayer and adding loops of absorbent material to it. These loops trap the water close to the fabric via surface tension (probably; I’m trying to apply my limited knowledge of fluid dynamics here), and longer loops allow for more water to be absorbed- the upper limit can be seen in your typical bath towel construction. This material is known as terrycloth, and is usually made from cotton (sometimes with a little polyester). However, all of these tiny little loops add up to a sizeable quantity of stuff, such that even when pressed flat they turn a towel into a pretty thick bit of material. This combined with the size of any useful towel means that even a folded up one takes up a lot of space in, say, a suitcase, making it impractical as an everyday item to carry around with you. Its size also presence a psychological issue, making it difficult to carry discreetly. The over-the-shoulder approach displayed proudly by Towel Day practitioners will, in everyday life, make one a target for minor abuse and funny looks from people you may happen to bump into, and is hardly suitable for events other than special occasions. Not only that, but a terrycloth construction makes any large towel heavy, decreasing its practicality both for transport and general use. Small wonder towels present a major problem to holidaymakers with limited suitcase space every year.
A solution that has presented itself in recent years to the towel/travelling problem is the microfibre towel, a typically smaller, lightweight version. These do not use looped material to absorb water; instead, the microfibre (kevlar, interestingly, is a common choice of material for microfibre, although not necessarily towels) designed specifically to be very thin, allowing it to be woven incredibly finely and to have highly absorbent properties, as well as drying out quickly. Microfibre towels offer many benefits; they are thin, lightweight and easy to manipulate, allowing them to be stored with ease, and because of their ultrafine construction will probably present a better barrier to the aforementioned noxious fumes. However, this feature has also proved their downfall to the towel enthusiast; by marketing themselves as ‘travel towels’, designed solely for the purpose of taking up as little space as possible in a suitcase, it is virtually impossible to find one that is not too thin and too small to be very useful with in a non-drying oneself context. My own travel towel, which I do find makes an acceptable backup, never feels like it could hold my weight (always an important consideration in considering the usefulness of one’s towel; you never know when you’re going to need an impromptu rope) like my bath towel can, and I can barely fit around my waist if I use it in the shower; it would make a useless raft-sail. In their current format, therefore, microfibre towels are not the solution to the problem of the convenient towel.
With contemporary towel technology, the best solution is probably the beach towel; they are reasonably lightweight, strong, comfortable, available in a variety of shapes & sizes to suit one’s need, and they make up for in maneouvreability what they lack in absorbance. A medium-sized beach towel is a good compromise for many basic needs, and I advocate keeping one in the car (seriously, you’d be amazed how often they can come in handy). But perhaps microfibre may be the way forward at some point in the future; especially if we can one day get rid of the tiresome stigma that comes with striding down the street, proudly carrying one’s towel slung boldly across the shoulder, ready to take on the universe.