I like stiff drinks, but not stiff towels
February 10, 2012 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Yet another laundry question. We have these towels and love their weight, size, color, and absorbancy. Our only complaint, and it's a big one, is that they are pretty hard and stiff now. I'm at my wits' end trying to soften them up. Please hope me.

They're maybe a year old. That's not brand new, but well within what I would consider their usable lifespan. The towels are washed weekly in a HE machine, using very little fragrance-free liquid Tide, then dried fully in the dryer on "normal" temperature. In the summer, when mildew is a problem, they're washed in hot water. The rest of the year I wash them in warm water and rinse in cold water.

I've tried adding phosphates with the detergent (a few times), using an organic detergent, double-rinsing, and once even threw a dryer sheet in the dryer with them. Nothing seemed to soften them up much.

Is there something else I haven't thought of to try? Have I not given enough of a chance to something I've already tried? Or will I just have to live with lovely, but stiff, towels?
posted by DrGail to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have heard that putting vinegar in the washer with the towels can help make them soft again, but have never actually tried this.
posted by naturalog at 9:20 AM on February 10, 2012

I also wanted to suggest tossing a cup of vinegar in with the towels next time you wash them.
posted by pemberkins at 9:21 AM on February 10, 2012

Sounds to me like you're not using a fabric softener. If you aren't, you can use a dryer sheet, but a single wash/dry cycle may not be enough if you haven't been using them regularly.

Give it another few goes and see what happens, or just get some Bouncy or whatever and try that.

Vinegar has its uses, but said uses are mostly for killing mildew. A capful of bleach put in your machine's bleach dispenser does the same thing.
posted by valkyryn at 9:21 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

you could try out dryer balls.
posted by royalsong at 9:35 AM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would use either vinegar or liquid fabric softener. Stiff towels usually means there's still soap in them; vinegar or softener *in the softener dispenser* make the bubbles break down after the wash cycle so they actually rinse out rather than re-suds in the rinse cycle. You don't want to dump it in with the soap because then nothing gets washed.

You may want to reassess how much detergent you're using, as well. HE machines really need very little, and clearly these particular towels are good at soaking it up.

You might try a soap-free vinegar-only wash on some clean towels and see if they come out of the dryer any softer.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:36 AM on February 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I second the lack of fabric softener being the long-term culprit. If you don't like chemicals, try out dryer balls (on preview, royalsong beat me to it). They fluff up the fabric through their motion and work very well, from experience.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:37 AM on February 10, 2012

Vinegar during the rinse cycle. Or vinegar and hot water without any detergent. Don't worry, your towels won't smell like vinegar.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards at 9:40 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Actually, using fabric-softener actually makes towels less absorbent over time. They may work for a few cycles, but eventually the towels get more scratchy and less effective. My husband is the laundry guru in our house, but he uses vinegar and our towels are very soft and absorbent. Bonus: vinegar helps knock out mildew as well.
posted by Kimberly at 9:43 AM on February 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

Fabric softener causes towels to lose absorbency over time. It builds up.

Do you have hard water? Use less detergent, add borax to the (hot or warm, I prefer hot because I am super-obsessive about laundry) wash, and vinegar to the rinse water. I like Lyn Never's suggestion of running a detergent-free load.

I notice that "snapping" towels that are stiffer out of the dryer (or, more usually, when hung), helps soften them up (this is kind of the theory behind dryer balls--that and keeping the fabric from getting caught against a part of the barrel and drying in a weird position--this used to happen to my hand towels). I also notice that the label for the care states machine wash cold. I use white towels, so this may not apply to you, as perhaps it's the dye that the manufacturers are concerned about: you may also be losing the "finish" on the towels.

Experiment with dryer fullness as well: the dryer may be too full for the towels to soften up properly, or they may be catching on the barrel and drying in place rather than tumbling freely.

Also: this book has solved my laundry problems. I'm at work, so I'm paraphrasing from memory.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 9:44 AM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another voice for vinegar. Hard water is the devil.

And another voice for dryer balls. Or, indeed, clean tennis balls. After the whole load is dry, running a 15-minute "fluff" cycle with only the towels and the dryer balls/tennis balls may do the trick.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:05 AM on February 10, 2012

Hmm, that is very strange! I have those same exact towels and LOVE them. Mine are 5 years old and not stiff at all. All I have ever used is Method detergent and occasionally some bleach. I always wash them in hot water too. I wonder if maybe you have hard water? A vinegar rinse won't hurt.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:18 AM on February 10, 2012

Try running them through a cycle without any soap or detergent. (Maybe use the vinegar as well.) And don't overload the dryer - I never dry more than 4 towels at a time.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:05 AM on February 10, 2012

Vinegar, as everyone said. But I take it to the extreme: every few months, I wash a load of bath/hand/face towels (as in, everything but dishtowels) in nothing but vinegar. Then dry (no softener). They come out like new.
posted by AmandaA at 11:08 AM on February 10, 2012

Run them through a hot cycle with an extra rinse and NO soap. Detergent build up, along with residual cleansers from drying you off, can make towels stiff. You'll be surprised how sudsy the water gets even with no laundry detergent.

And no fabric softener is also ideal if you want the towels to actually absorb water when you use them.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 11:26 AM on February 10, 2012

I have the same towels, the same detergent, and an HE washer. Before I had the HE washer, they were always soft. Now they get stiff, and I nth everyone who says it's detergent buildup. It helps to always use hot water and the "extra water" setting, and if they don't seem fully rinsed after that I run them through another rinse cycle. It's also good not to overfill the washer.

I'll have to give the vinegar a shot, too.
posted by magicbus at 11:55 AM on February 10, 2012

Hang 'em outside. Even hang 'em to dry inside.

Some people like rough towels, and they may be designed for that. Towels are more absorbent when not coated with whatever gunk is in those softener sheets.
posted by zadcat at 12:50 PM on February 10, 2012

Nthing vinegar. We wash a hell of a lot of stuffed animals that get chewed up and disgusting so our wash cycle is Tide + 1/2 cup vinegar + 1/2 cup Borax. Bonus is that it keeps the towels fluffy too!
posted by sonika at 1:29 PM on February 10, 2012

Did anyone mention vinegar yet?

I was skeptical. It worked really for us. Fluffy towels!

posted by tkerugger at 1:34 PM on February 10, 2012

Does this happen to be a MAYTAG HE washer? If so, the plastic guide that moves the doors on the soap/rinse dispenser has either come off or broken. If this is not functioning, the rinse softener is not dispensing at the right time. Our towels were stiff as a board. After it was fixed (it took a service call and was a familiar problem to the tech) they came out soft as a baby's bottom and have continued to be so for a year now. I use the hottest water setting, but that's just the way I am when I wash towels.
posted by Old Geezer at 9:34 PM on February 10, 2012

Also, as mentioned above, use very little detergent and a goodly amount of liquid fabric softener with your towels.
posted by Old Geezer at 9:36 PM on February 10, 2012

I think what you need is one of those laundry ball things that both softens clothes and cleans them. Something like : http://www.lakeland.co.uk/22919/8-Washer-Balls

or http://www.lakeland.co.uk/23139/Lakeland-Laundry-Ball

Use the vinegar and then the laundry balls. They really helped make my clothes and towels soft. They smell like NOTHING so keep that in mind.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 3:49 AM on February 11, 2012

Another option would be to wash them with some ammonia occasionally.
posted by gjc at 6:20 AM on February 11, 2012

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