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Dish Towels

Published February 2014

How we tested

When we last scrutinized dish towels, the Now Designs Ripple Towel aced our tests. But at $8, it seemed a little expensive to use on the toughest tasks. Worse, readers complained that its seams sometimes unraveled after several washes. So we went back to the drawing board and bought new towels in a broad selection of sizes and textures from a kitchenware shop and low-priced restaurant suppliers. We even tested a new cloth diaper—one of our editors swears by them—and while we focused on cotton, which was strongly preferred in previous tests, we threw in one synthetic microfiber towel (the fabric is known for wicking moisture). With eight towels (priced from $2 to $8 per towel), including our old favorite, we went to work.

Whether we’re using it to dry a dish or soak up a spill, first and foremost, a dish towel must be absorbent. To quantify absorbency, we dangled an inch of every towel into a tub of water for 15 minutes, weighing towels before and after. We did it again, this time dropping each towel on the surface of a tub of water to mimic wiping up a big spill. Microfiber excelled, while cotton towels ran the gamut. The worst towels seemed to almost repel water, floating lazily and taking a full minute to submerge. In the dangling test, we watched weaves acting like channels: Water zigzagged along herringbone, stepped up horizontal ribbing in fits and starts, traveled steadily up flat weaves, and stayed put in thick terry. The best towels had thinner areas that quickly transported water and thicker spongelike zones that held on to it.

We repeated our dangling test after putting the towels through 10 laundry cycles. Good news: All became dramatically more absorbent. Why? New textiles often contain leftover “sizing,” a protective treatment that repels water. Two formerly middling towels became 100 percent more absorbent, taking in more than the former winner did when new. Nevertheless, the microfiber towel, as well as cotton towels with mixed textures, still held a clear advantage.

We often use dish towels as kitchen tools, enlisting them to squeeze out excess liquid from watery vegetables before cooking or to fill in for potholders, among other tasks. We put 10 ounces of defrosted frozen spinach into each towel and wrung the towels firmly. A few narrower towels were barely broad enough to contain even that modest amount of food. Thicker towels were harder to squeeze than thin-to-medium-weight towels. We also used each towel to remove hot baking dishes filled with pie weights from a 450-degree oven. Bigger, thicker towels were harder to control, but the thinnest, smallest towels felt inadequate. (Warning: Microfiber is prone to melt; don’t use it as a potholder. Also, never use a wet towel to handle a hot dish.) Our favorite midweight cotton towels readily folded into rectangles—about 10 by 7 inches—and felt secure while keeping our hands cool.

Testing the towels’ maneuverability in tight spots, we dried slim, delicate champagne flutes. No surprise that the thickest towels felt clumsy and made us fear dropping our glassware. Not so with thinner towels, which slipped into every cranny and dried thoroughly. The microfiber towel turned in another excellent performance, but we just couldn’t overcome our dislike of its prickly, squeaky surface.

Finally, to test durability we poured on beet juice, mustard, wine, and oil and let the towels soak over a long weekend. Then we put them through 26 full laundry cycles to mimic six months of weekly washing. Within a few washes, towels started showing signs of wear and tear. By the end, nearly all the towels had shrunk, but as long as they kept close to their original size and hemmed edges stayed flat and intact, we didn’t fault them. On the plus side, midweight cotton towels with combination weaves seemed to grow thicker and sturdier.

In the end, one set of towels emerged as the clear winner. They featured cotton fabric with strips of basket weave alternating with flat weave, so they absorbed well without excessive bulk and only got tougher and thirstier with use. At more than 3 square feet, they’re generous without being gigantic. And they cleaned up nicely.

The Results


Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.


Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.


Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.


Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.


Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.


Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.