A Brief History Of Towels

We take towels for granted don’t we? We use them functionally for the most part as something to dry ourselves with after a bath or shower. But have you ever thought about where towels came from or who invented them in history?


Towels originated in Turkey made with Turkish cotton or linen. At first they were used in the ritual of a bride’s ceremonial, pre-nuptial bath. Towels were made for every part of her body including her shoulders and her head.

Original Turkish towels

It wasn’t only brides who used the Turkish Baths or Hamams of course; flat woven sheets of material were used here to dry the body. In fact the Hamams definitely had an influence on the invention of towels. The original ones were known as Pestamels. This flat design was very useful in the Hamams as the towels were light-weight and dried quickly.

These pieces of cloth were originally quite narrow but wrapped all around the body. They were embroidered by hand if there was any decoration on them at all. Over the years they were made wider.

The influence of the Ottoman Empire

With the growth of the Ottoman Empire so the demands on the towels they used grew too. The weavers had to come up with more decorative towels as the women in the Ottoman palaces called for more and more elaborate designs.

By the 18th century the weavers began to create towels with loops. They did this by using a double thickness or two lengths of thread known as ply. One thread wove the base of the towel and the other formed a loop. Remember this was all done by hand. Now machines cleverly make the loops on the towels we use today.

These original Turkish looped towels became known as ‘havly’; today a towel in Turkey is called a ‘havlu’ which means ‘with loops’.

The art of weaving

Apparently there are still two traditional weaving companies in Turkey that produce towels by hand. Towels are now used all over the world mainly for drying our bodies after baths and showers but there are a few other uses too:

  • To lie on at the beach or on other ground
  • Infamously to save your sun lounger by the pool on holiday
  • Hairdressers use shoulder towels to protect gowns and clothing while giving hair treatments
  • Barbers use steamed towels to make the skin ready for shaving
  • Towels are often used to cover private parts during a massage
  • In Boxing the term ‘throwing in the towel’ comes from the actual act. A boxer’s corner could literally throw a towel into the ring to denote the boxer’s defeat

National Towel Day

Did you know that 25th May each year is National Towel Day? The day was inaugurated in 2001 two weeks after the death of Douglas Adams author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In the book, it says towels are ‘the most massively useful thing(s) an interstellar hitchhiker can have’ and goes on to list reasons why.

By Rob Rudd


Rob Rudd regularly writes for lifestyle and interior decor websites. He enjoys wandering around other peoples houses and borrowing their good ideas to implement in his own home.