When you hear the word ‘towel,’ what images come to mind?
In Japan, we use a variety of towels in our daily lives – a large bath towel after taking a bath or shower, a medium-sized face towel after washing our face and hands, a mini/hand towel for drying our hands while on the go, an ‘oshibori’ towel for wiping our hands before a meal, a sports towel for drying perspiration during a day out in the sun. There are countless scenes where towels are used.
While there are many sizes, shapes and uses for towels, there is one important function we all expect from the general term [towel], and that function is to absorb moisture.
The Definition and Origin of ‘Towel’
There are a number of theories regarding the origin of the word [towel] in the Japanese language, such as [tirerr] from France or [toalla] from Spain (both originating from an ancient German term referring to a moisture-absorbing cloth). The most commonly accepted theory regarding the Japanese form of the word, pronounced [TAORU], came from the English language, as there are records that show towels being imported from England in the early Meiji era (1868-1912).
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a towel is ‘an absorbent cloth or paper for drying or wiping.’
The Japanese definition of the term [towel] differs slightly from that of western countries. In Japan, when we think of a towel, most of us imagine a type fabric with pile loops, referred to as Terry Cloth in western countries. Strangely enough, in a Japanese dictionary the western word ‘TAORU’ is definited as ‘a towel or cloth made of towel fabric.’
Turkish Hammam and the Birth of the Turkish towel
While the origin of towels can be traced back to the early Stone Age where traces of textiles made of bark and linen were found at a Swiss ruins, the more contemporary version of the towel (by Japanese definition) commonly dates back to 17th century Turkey.
Similar to public bathhouses and saunas in Japan, the Turkish bath called the Hammam, was culturally widespread. In the religious context, it was customary to perform a full-body cleansing as a form of purification before prayer. At the Hammam, (then used primarily by men) it was customary to enter wrapped in a large cloth known as a Peshtemal. This large cloth, (not yet woven with pile loops) was known as being lightweight, highly absorbent, quick drying, and compact in size.
As the Ottoman Turkish Empire rose in power and geographical influence in the 17th and 18th centuries, so too did the demand for skillfully woven, elaborately designed towels. During this time, it is said the looped version of towel fabric was invented in the northwestern city of Bursa. Up to this point, towels were woven with warp and weft – warp refers the longitudinal (vertical) thread, while weft refers to the horizontal thread that runs through the warp thread.
By adding a third looped thread into the mix, the fabric known as ‘havly’ was born. Today, the name ‘havly’ has evolved into the Turkish word for towel – ‘havlu’ and means ‘with loops.’ At the time, the looped towels were individually handmade, and because only 3-4 towels could be woven per person per day, the towel which became to be known as the Turkish Towel was considered a highly prized craft.
In 1850, the Turkish towel would make its way to England…