What is a Turkish Towel?
So the Turkish Towel... popular, ubiquitous, colourful and value for money (depending on where you shop) but what actually is a “Turkish Towel” and where did it come from. The Pestemal (as it’s also known) was originally used in bathhouses made popular during the Roman Empire that stretched from Europe to North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. As the popularity of the public bathouse slowly diminished in the west, Byzantine bathhouses (also known as a Hammam) continued and played a central role in social interaction, relaxation and importantly personal hygiene as the advent of modern plumbing was still centuries away. Primarily used to dry the body after getting cleaned the pestemal was also worn in the public resting areas of the Hammam.
Why all the fuss?
Whilst still used in Hammams and spas today (particularly in Turkey) the pestemal has found a new home in contemporary lifestyle. The lightweight nature and high absorbency of the cotton make it also a perfect beach towel - shake off the sand, roll it up and you’re away! The various designs and range of colours also mean it’s made it into the home as more people use them for throws in the lounge, bedroom or replacing the humble bath towel - you could say it’s good at multi tasking.
You hear the term absorbency used to describe Turkish Towels all the time but what does this actually mean and why is cotton so good at it? Well at its most basic level it's due to the molecular structure of both cotton and water and how they interact… whoa hang on a minute - molecular what?
Able to absorb approx 25 times its weight in water, cotton and its properties are categorized as hydrophilic - ie “materials with a special affinity for water — those it spreads across, maximizing contact”
Cotton is made up of giant polymer molecules. These are long chains of atoms linked in repeating patterns offering lots of places where water molecules can find a place to bond. The negatively charged outer edge of the cellulose molecule (cotton is cellulose) attracts water molecules (the slightly positive charged hydrogen atoms) allowing absorption to occur.
Ok so you got this far congratulations and thanks! Want more? great let's keep going.
Turkish or Egyptian Cotton - which is best?
Both Turkish and Egyptian cotton are synonymous with luxury - and rightly so. However there are many different varieties and types of cottons and these characteristics help determine the use for the cotton, and therefore its value.
The primary cotton grown in Turkey is the “Upland type” [Gossypium hirsutum] compared to ELS or “extra long staple” and “long staple” cotton from Egypt [Gossypium barbadense]. The main difference between these types are staple length, fibre strength, fineness and cost. Due to hand harvesting certain ELS cotton (Giza 45 in particular) and the relatively low yield the cost associated with this cotton can be significantly higher than other varieties. Additionally, too high absorbency level is not ideal for beach / bath towels as it makes drying much more difficult. The Turkish cotton used in pestemals strikes the balance between cost, quality and absorbency. However at the end of the day it really is personal preference, if it feels good then go for it we say!
Better Cotton Initiative
There are positive steps being taken to increase the sustainability of cotton production at all levels, the Better Cotton Standard System is a “holistic approach to sustainable cotton production which covers all three pillars of sustainability: environmental, social and economic”, “working to bring together farmers, ginners, traders, spinners, mills, cut & sew, manufacturers, retailers, brands and grassroots organisations in a unique global community committed to developing cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity” Right now the IPUD is responsible for the implementation of the better cotton standard system in Turkey. As a business our goal is a little simpler but no less important - to understand the production process of the pestemal from the “seed to the towel” - form strong relationships with our manufacturers, support local business’ in regional areas and ensure the growing and harvesting of the cotton adheres to the goals of BCI. We aim to document our experiences from our time in Turkey so customers can learn with us.