Ask Madelyn: Good Fibers for Dishtowels

I want to use some old project instructions that call for 10/2 unmercerized cotton for dishtowels. I can’t seem to find any of that yarn in colors (Fox Fibre cottons do come in unmercerized cotton in that size, but only in the colors of natural cotton). I have heard that mercerized—or pearl—cottons are not as absorbent as unmercerized cottons, so I don’t know if I should use 10/2 pearl cotton, though it is widely available.


Hi Sherrie!

While mercerized cottons are not as absorbent as unmercerized cottons, I have found that they improve with repeated washings. I think you will be satisfied with 10/2 pearl cotton for dish towels. I usually cut apart the towels and hem them after I’ve removed them from the loom and then machine wash them in hot water. I remove them from the machine as soon as the cycle ends and press them with the iron on a cotton setting until they are completely dry. Some intense colors of pearl cotton run, so ironing them dry prevents the dyes from running, which they will do if you let the fabric remain wet for very long. (The running seems to be caused by excess dye, so this treatment isn’t usually necessary after the first washing.)

Even then, these towels won’t be as absorbent as towels in unmercerized cotton or cottolin. Another option, therefore, is to use the same project instructions but substitute 8/2 unmercerized cotton, which is available in a very wide range of colors. Usually, this involves changing the sett from 24 ends per inch for plain weave in 10/2 cotton to 20 ends per inch with 8/2 cotton (or from 27-28 ends per inch for twill to 24 ends per inch). This difference is so slight that you might be able to use all of the rest of the draft/instructions exactly as they are for slightly wider towels than the originals. Cottolin is also a good choice for the same subsitution. 22/2 cottolin (50% linen, 50% cotton) at 3,000 yd/lb –3,360 yd/lb is essentially the same size yarn as 8/2 cotton (3,360 yd/lb). Towels in cottolin have a more matte finish than in cotton and are very absorbent. Cottolin is also available in many colors.

And check out the dish towels in our Best of Handwoven: Top Ten Dish Towels on Four Shafts eBook!


If you have a weaving question please email Madelyn! Featured Image: Photo by George Boe. View related & recent “Ask Madelyn” posts!

Updated August 20, 2018.

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