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.