Happy Towel Day

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Fifteen years ago, froods and strags worldwide mourned the death of Douglas Adams, the witty author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. If you have not read that book and its hilarious sequels, I urge you to do so.

Within his books, Adams famously wrote that a towel is “about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” In honor of his wisdom, I thought I would share a bit about what makes a towel so good at what we Earthlings generally use it for – drying.

Cloth towels are generally made from cotton, a cheap but very absorbent fiber. Cotton is so absorbent because its fibers are essentially long, hollow tubes.

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Cotton fiber (C) has hollow channels that can carry water easily. Silk (A) and wool (B) fibers are less absorbent.

These tubes can easily suck up liquids in the same way that a straw can easily suck up water.

But while all cotton is more absorbent than other types of fibers, there’s a reason a cotton usually feels different than a cotton T-shirt or blanket. That’s because towels are woven in a special way to take advantage of cotton’s natural absorbency.

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Cotton in a T-shirt, as shown in both pictures above, is generally woven tightly to produce a strong, yet comfortable fabric. However, this tight weaving exposes relatively little of the surface of the cotton, meaning each fiber will encounter less liquid and thus have less chance to absorb it.

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In contrast, a towel’s surface has loosely woven strands of cotton sticking out of it, exposing the surface of many fibers to any liquid the fabric encounters. This allows towels to quickly absorb a lot of liquid. Think about cotton fibers sucking up water next time you get out of the shower.

And as Mr. Adams instructed: Don’t panic, and don’t forget your towel.

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