You think your beach towel is just some colourful barrier between your ass and the sand? Wrong. That water-wicking blanket is actually an intricately designed instrument, fine-tuned to provide you with the best possible poolside experience. And here's the thing: It's entirely possible that you've been using it wrong all along.
The beach towel is not just an oversized, elaborately patterned bathroom towel, used to dry you off any which way. It has two distinct sides, designed for two very different purposes—and one side has absolutely no business in the bathroom.
The side that'll look most familiar is the one made for drying. It's excellent for H20 removal, but it's less comfortable for sitting on. This surface is comprised of loops designed to wick away water. "You want enough length in the loops that you'll get enough surface area," says Jason Burke of Target's Product Design and Development team. "But the catch with the beach towel is that you don't want it to get too heavy—because then it won't dry quickly."
Run-of-the-mill bathroom towels tend to have more tightly packed loops. People don't really mind if it takes their bath towel 24 hours to dry because it's typically only used once a day. They pick up more water, but their density and weight also make them slower to dry out.
But people drag the beach variety from the pool to the spa to the lawn chair and back again—and they expect their towels to make the trip without devolving into soaking, fetid lumps. So the loops are spread out enough that air can more easily get in and make quick work of drying them.
The towel's reverse side also prevents it from becoming water-logged. The reason: It's not really designed to take on water. Instead, this side's main job is to provide you with a comfortable place to park your nearly naked bod. It's soft! And because the soft side's purpose is to face the sky, it also tends to be adorned with an elaborate pattern.
Manufacturers achieve both of these purposes by lopping off the tops of the loops on this side of the towel. The result is a super comfy and uniform velour surface (something we can get behind in non-tracksuit form) that's more amenable to printing. Moreover, the sheared off top means less weight.
"The trickiest part is really finding the balance between beauty and quality," says Burke. "You want something that looks great, but is still absorbent." Looks alone would produce a super-printable, all velour towel that didn't do squat after a dip in the pool. But on the flip side, something that's super efficient at taking on water will never dry, and tends to be hard to print on. So towel designers find a desirable medium by making one light, soft, and expressive surface for lounging, and another to pick up water.
Oh, and when you're finished rolling around in the sand, don't throw the thing in the wash with fabric softener. "It makes the surface of the fibers silky and less absorbent," says Burke.
So next time you need a beach towel's services, be sure to use treat it right so it can do the same for you. Soft side up for relaxing, looped side in for drying. Dip, relax, repeat.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
Drawing Board is where we explore the amazing origins of everyday objects. Know an interesting story? Tip us off at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: "Idea for drawing board," and we'll investigate.