What makes one microfibre towel different from another?
What the does ‘GSM’ mean?
Why are premium towels so much more expensive than the ones I got at the store?
There are a lot of questions surrounding microfibre and just as much misinformation leading to confusion. We’ve covered the basics of towel care in our other articles, but this one is going to be different. This is more about understanding what microfiber is, what the various terms associated with it mean, and how towels are graded/categorized. Arming you with this information will allow you to understand better what separates a good towel from a bad towel, why different towels are better for certain tasks, and ultimately make you a better detailer.
As detailing enthusiasts and professionals we’ve come to take this amazing material for granted, like its always been here, but its actually a very recent addition to the world of car care, one that has really changed our industry a great deal.
“Microfibre” or tiny man-made fibres for textiles actually started being produced back as early as the 1950’s though the applications were extremely limited and technology at the time limited the finished product to fibres that were just too short for many useful applications.Technology didn’t quite catch up until the the later 1960’s when researchers in Japan were able to produce these tiny fibers in long continuous strands. Being able to produce continuous ultra-thin fibers lead to the material being adopted for a variety of applications in the 1970’s in the textile industry. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the material would gain popularity in the cleaning products market, but mostly in the janitorial and hospitality industries.
It was in the early 2000’s that I had my first experience with this new ‘micro towel’ a friend of mine had gotten his hands on. It was softer than the cotton diapers we were all used to using in those days and in the coming years we began to see more and more variety in towels available. A good friend and fellow detailer actually began importing these towels as a side business around 2002.
In the following years microfibre would explode and become widely accepted as the best option for vehicle detailing. The towels continued to improve and find new configurations – waffle weave, glass towels, foam core towels, applicators, and most recently the microfiber buffing pad.
WHY IT WORKS SO WELL
Microfibre, being a man made material, offers a number of advantages over natural fibres. The most obvious being its size – the average strand of microfiber is 1/100th the size of a strand of human hair, making it the smallest textile fiber available.
The controlled manufacturing of microfibre also means that its consistent in size/shape regardless of any other factors, where as a cotton or wool fibre can vary greatly in size, shape, or length based on a number of factors including where it came from and how it was processed.
Additionally the fibre structure commonly used in automotive towels is perfect for cleaning. The inner polyester star, and polyamide wedge design gives each fibre a pocket design that traps and holds dirt or moisture when needed, pulling it away for the surface its cleaning. (see picture below)
Versatility in the materials performance comes from the variety of ways it can be configured. Plush for delicate tasks, waffle weave for absorbancy, looped for cleaning/scrubbing, or even flat for hard surfaces. In the short time microfiber has been available to the masses it has found multiple uses no one originally dreamed it could be used for, so its safe to assume we’ll continue to see new and innovative uses for it as the industry continues to change.
KNOW YOUR TERMS
A few common terms will come up in discussions of microfibre composition and quality. Below are the key terms to know so you can understand what separates one towel from the next:
GSM – “Grams Per Square Meter” or “g/m2” is sometimes referred to as a towels “weight”. This measurement dictates the towels overall fiber density, or in other words the relation between the mass of a towel and how much space or volume it takes up. Typically the higher the GSM the softer the towel. Towels for use on delicate surfaces should be at least 360gsm, but higher ratings are preferred. Towels in the 200-350gsm range are generally best for non-sensitive surfaces or heavy duty cleaning/scrubbing tasks.
RATIO – this is typically represented on the tag or packaging by a number (80/20 or 70/30 for example) this is an indication of the two components, the first number is the polyester content, the second number is the polyamide content. In the towels construction the polyester serves primarily as the binder, so the higher the amount of polyamide typically the higher the level of softness, but as a tradeoff the binding can be weaker leading to towels that lint when dragged thru liquids or over rough surfaces.
There are a number of towel types on the market, and an almost infinite number of variations within each segment. For the sake of keeping this writeup on track we’ll cover the primary categories, but feel free to ask questions about other types in the comments.
PLUSH TOWEL: These are the towels we think of most times when we think microfibre. They feature clumps of long microfiber strands that have a super soft feel. Towels in this category are most commonly preferred for the removal of polish/wax or tasks where pile depth is important to pull contamination away from the surface. Their primary benefit is their ability to be used on delicate surfaces without the introduction of damage.
WAFFLE WEAVE: Used almost exclusively in the area of drying and moisture removal, waffle weave towels take advantage of the microfibres already absorbent properties and add to it by weaving pockets into the structure giving it the ability to hold even more liquid. These towels will, pound for pound, hold more water weight than any other towel design.
GLASS TOWEL: Also referred to as a flat weave, these towels have a look and feel that more closely resembles satin or silk. Due to their weave, not necessarily the fiber itself, they are recommended for use on glass and other hard surfaces that don’t scratch. Because the fibers are woven tightly together and very flat it makes the ideal ‘optical cloth’ as the surface acts almost like a squeegee, letting no liquid pass between the fibers.
UTILITY TOWEL: These towels will typically use a low ratio or low GSM material in a short loop configuration. This makes them ideal for scrubbing and cleaning on surfaces that are not susceptible to scratching (leather, vinyl, glass, etc) and are far less prone to linting than the longer fiber plush towel.
ANALYSING TOWEL TYPES
Now that you’re armed with a basic understanding of the various towel types and the terms that define them lets take a look at example of each up close and delve into visuals on how you can evaluate your towels.
Have you ever gotten a really close look at your microfibre? Visually you can see the differences between the various applications, but getting even closer reveals a lot about each towel and why its suited to the tasks it is and adding a ‘light test’ to our evaluation we can learn even more.
The Plush Towels feature a 470gsm material with fairly long fibre characteristics. When you get up close and personal with these towels (like above) its clear that there is a very densely packed fibre, making it ideal for use on delicate surfaces. The amount of fibres lend themselves to streak free cleaning, a delicate touch, and the deep fibres have plenty of give for debris to retreat away from the surface you are cleaning. The fibres are a 70/30 blend of polyester and polyamide, making them softer in addition to being more prolific per square inch of towel area.
By performing the light test using a 135 lumen LED spotlight on all 3 colours of the edgeless towel at zero distance we see that very little light can pass through the material. This further illustrates the density and thickness of the towels fibres.
When we compare the fibre structure of the plush edgeless towels to the more utility style composition of the Light Blue Microfibre towel we can see a very distinct difference. This towel features a much shorter fiber design that is woven in a closed loop. Each strand forms a loop back into the towel. This gives it much more strength and scrubbing power for dirty tasks, but it does limit its ability to safely clean on more delicate surfaces without introducing swirls.
By moving to the light test we can easily see that the more utilitarian design of the Light Blue Towel allows a substantial amount of light thru. This is simply because the towel has fewer fibres in an economical 80/20 blend and 305gsm. This design isn’t considered safe for sensitive surfaces, though it will minimise the odds of damage on delicate materials compared to lower quality towels commonly found at the 220gsm range.
Waffle Weave towels are among the most popular options for drying due to their light weight, but amazing ability to hold liquids. The fibre itself is absorbent, but by weaving the waffle-pocket-type pattern into the towel another dimension of absorbency is gained. While these may not appear as plush as other towels the materials used are identical to those found in high quality plush towels.
Once again performing the light test at zero distance we see that the thicker portions of the weave let virtually zero light pass thru, while the lower pockets where the towel is thinner allow a fair amount of light transfer. The Waffle Weave towel in particular is constructed using the higher quality 70/30 blend microfibre and a 360gsm weight making it perfectly safe for sensitive surfaces while still maintaining its very absorbent properties.
Glass towels feature a very unique weave pattern when analysed closely, but few people ever notice. The above picture at extreme zoom shows the very uniform and flat pattern of the glass towel. This design gives it virtually no recess for contamination and for that reason its not recommended for any delicate surfaces, but for materials like glass it’s ideal. It makes full contact with the surface to be cleaned, leaving very little room for cleaners or residues to escape between fibres.
When viewed in the light test you can virtually see the LED bulb on the other side of the towel. The weave on a dedicated glass towel is very thin, so many people assume that a glass towel can be made using lower quality fibres – this is not true! For the best performance high quality fibers should still be used – window tint films, while not prone to scratching, can be damaged by low quality towels. For that reason we specify the same 70/30 fibre found in our other towels and a very dense 350gsm weight. This maximises cleaning power and reduces linting.
SO WHAT DOES A LOWER QUALITY TOWEL LOOK LIKE?
There are numerous sources for towels out there, some better than others. While marketing might suggest that a towel is safe for paint, its not always the case. Below are a couple of examples commonly seen online or available in bulk locally.
The towel above is regularly marketed by a number of suppliers as ‘premium’ towel, for use on delicate surfaces. The stats show a towel with 75/25 fiber content and a 345gsm, just under the ‘safe for paint’ minimum. The general look and feel of the towel are good, you’d probably be comfortable using it on your paint.
The light test shows us that the density at 345gsm isn’t that great. This towel would be one that I’d probably recommend you keep for wheels or less sensitive materials, but spare your clear coat. We’ve all seen the bulk pack, 30 or 40 towels locally. Everyone loves a bargain and it would be great if they were towels safe for paint, but in this case the stats tell us all we need to know. At 80/20 ratio and 220gsm these towels are all but guaranteed to scratch delicate surfaces.
The 220gsm material lets so much light thru it actually throws the metering off in the auto setting of my camera blowing the exposure out. The only towel I documented that had this problem. The ceiling directly above my test bench actually had a clear light pattern on it where light was passing cleanly through the towel. This would be an indication of wildly inconsistent gaps between fibres, but also gaps so large light can pass cleanly through it without little to no diffusion. This is a towel type that should be reserved for only the most durable of surfaces. Please NEVER use a towel like this on your paint or anything that could possibly be scratched. Just because they call it microfibre, doesn’t mean its up to the standards necessary for cleaning your cars paint.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
While there are towels out there with amazing GSM stats be sure to pay attention to the towels configuration. Some towels boasting 800+gsm are using a little bit of omission in that rating. A towel constructed of 2 layers rated at 800gsm is technically only 400gsm per side – the combined thickness doesn’t add to the performance of the towel, but does add thickness. Since you’re technically only using 1 side at a time, a single thick 470gsm towel is technically a higher quality than a dual layer 800gsm towel as its only 400gsm per layer. They’re both well above the 360gsm ‘safe for paint’ minimum, but don’t fall victim to a marketed number and pay more for similar or slightly lower quality.
As we’ve seen above, ratio and GSM alone don’t make a towel safe for paint. The glass towel features 70/30 ratio and 350gsm, just under the ‘safe for paint’ line, but its configuration (weave) makes it a poor choice for anything easily scratched.
WHAT ABOUT THE EDGES?
Unless you are dealing with a towel that features an edgeless design, like the Edgeless Towels sold on our site, its best to fold the edging into the centre of the towel and avoid contact with delicate surfaces. Satin edges are safe, but still can introduce light damage if there is any pressure put behind them. Wound or stitched edges are typically 100% polyester, because of this its recommended that these edges avoid contact with sensitive surfaces in all situations.
THE CD/DVD TEST
For years the “CD test” has been floated around as a means of determining if a towel will scratch clear coat. While the test does have some validity in comparing the quality of one towel versus another, the surfaces of writable CD’s and DVD’s is actually very dis-similar to that of automotive clear, it’s substantially softer in some cases.
So if you want to compare the softness between 2 different towels a CD test can certainly provide you that info, but just because a towel does or doesn’t scratch a CD doesn’t indicate anything that might happen to your paint. The best test for towel safety is still to simply test it in a small section of your vehicle before using it all over.
There is an argument to be made both for and against microfibre towels when it comes to their impact on the environment. On one hand you have the longevity and function of the towel which replaces many paper towels or cotton towels over its lifespan. In many janitorial uses it reduces the dependency on harsh chemicals and other things that can pollute water. The flip side of that argument is the fact that the towels are indeed made of non-renewable resources, are not at all biodegradable and experts believe the manufacturing of these towels in other parts of the world is having a dramatic impact on microplastic pollution when the fibres and unused material is washed into water ways and storm drains.
The truth of the matter is we don’t yet know what the long term impact of microfibre towels and their production has on the environment. In the meantime its best to always make use of towels for as long as possible and dispose of them responsibly when they are no longer useable around your garage or home.
Microfibre is pretty amazing stuff. It can be used for so many tasks and be configured in so many ways that its uses just continue to expand. Hopefully this article helps to shed some light (pun intended) on ways you can evaluate your towel collection and designate towels for their best uses. I’m never one to tell anyone to dispose of tools they have – but maybe armed now with a better understanding of your towels you’ll be able to use them more appropriately.
Those bulk cheap towels you bought still have a use on non-delicate surfaces. Your premium plush towels should have an even more substantial role in your cleaning processes.
If there isn’t a question answered above, or a concept you’d like more info on please ask in the comments below. Thanks for reading!
*this article has been extracted from Dylan vonKliest post on microfibre towels.