Textile Tales: Terrycloth
Terrycloth is a fabric we encounter at least once a day (hopefully) when we step out of the shower and towel ourselves off. Perhaps you have a luxurious bathrobe that you lend to your sleepover pals, so they can discreetly sneak past your roommates, that’s probably also terrycloth. Maybe you’re Sean Connery circa 1964 and have a very soft romper… whaddya know, that’s terrycloth too!
Terrycloth is best known for water absorption, making it the ideal choice for the aforementioned towels, robes, and iconic pre-pool playsuits. However, it’s become altogether uncommon to see it used for much beyond the pool and beach sphere and hardly ever in men’s clothing. Today, we’ll learn a bit more about this less-than-iconic fabric and its slightly more modern and wearable cousin, French terry.
Invention: The Dawn of Terry
Terrycloth and all its variants were born of a pre-industrialized French innovation by which the fabric was woven on a loom with not one, but two warp threads. One warp thread was left intentionally loose which, when pulled through the dense weft, formed loops on either side of the fabric, creating a piling effect. The first batches of terrycloth were made from silk, but eventually, the standard terrycloth would become the super-soft 100% cotton edition that we know and love today.
Starting in the 1850s, Samuel Holt’s terrycloth knitting machines began churning out terrycloth at an industrial scale. The name terrycloth, it is believed, comes from the French verb “tirer,” which means “to pull,” and it certainly makes sense, given how the fabric is made. Its softness and absorption factor made it a clear choice for use in towels, especially considering before terrycloth’s invention, people just used woven sheets of cotton or linen to dry off—definitely not as comfy.
Even if terrycloth sounded like a foreign concept to you, you’ll most certainly know French Terry. French terry is basically a lighter and more pragmatic style of terry where one side of the fabric is smooth and only one side has the characteristic piling we know and love. Though we’ve seen these used in modern sweatshirts constantly—with the smooth side facing out and the pile facing in for warmth—French terry was originally worn the opposite way.
As it was first worn on the French Riviera, as pictured in the Esquire illustration above, French terry was traditionally worn with the fuzzy, piled side facing outward and the smooth part inside. Though this partially defeats the towel-like purpose of normal terrycloth, these shirts merely emulated the style and were honestly worn by fancy folks who weren’t swimming all that much. French terry is much stretchier than standard terrycloth and not nearly as heavy.
French terry doesn’t just make for good beachwear, it’s also seen its fair share of sporty clothing. That piled side turned inward is perfect for soaking up the sweat of a good workout, although nowadays, when most of us don’t exercise in a groutfit, it’s mostly just to add a little warmth and coziness to your favorite sweatshirt. French terry is also more frequently blended with other fibers than its double-sided older brother. It’s not at all uncommon to add lycra, spandex, and sometimes even rayon to the mix.
Terry and French Terry Today
With the exception of certain brands like Drake’s, most designers have shied away from bringing back terrycloth garments in any major way. When they do, they always have that 1930s French Riviera feel, just as pictured in those beautiful old sketches for Esquire.
French terry, on the other hand, is more prolific than ever. Though it is now worn in a markedly different and less beachy context, the fabric has found its footing in the world of pseudo-athletic comfy clothes, like the sweatsuit worn by Rocky Balboa. You might not go to the gym fully decking in out in heather grey French terry, but its history remains evocative enough that we still wear it, even just for leisure.
But perhaps the first use of terrycloth is still the most important and most common, the humble everyday towel. Let’s all give thanks for this innovation in softness and water-absorbing technology that keeps us cozy out of the shower and on the beach. The double-sided piled fabric might have never dominated menswear beyond the beachfront, but we use the stuff every single day.