ISHP’s LINEN BUYER’S GUIDE
Benjamin West, LLLP
Whether your linen needs are budget, mid-priced, or luxury, the International Society of Hospitality Purchasers (ISHP) wants you to fully understand what you are purchasing.
Learn the difference between low price (the smallest initial expenditure), verses low cost
(the lowest cost per use, over the life of the textile).
The goal of the ISHP is to provide a continual, growing source of educational information regarding hospitality industry products. The ISHP encourages your comments regarding our Linen Buyer’s Guide. Please e-mail your comments to Alan
Benjamin, the Executive Vice President of the ISHP, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. Towels Pages 3-7
II. Sheets Pages 8-10
III. Blankets Pages 11-13
IV. Pillows Pages 14-17
; Size: refers to the finished (overall) dimensions of the towel, specified in inches,
width X length.
; Weight: refers to the weight of one dozen of a specific towel, specified as
; Type: refers to the intended use of the towel; in order of increasing size (sizes
given are examples), the basic four institutional types are: wash cloth (12X12),
hand towel (16X27), bath towel (24X50), and bath mat (20X30). A fingertip towel
(11X18) refers to a small towel, usually with fringe on the top and bottom; a bath
sheet (35X68) refers to a very large and heavy bath towel. A pool towel usually
refers to a small bath towel (20X40), either plain or with a solid stripe running
lengthwise down the center of the towel.
A “velour” towel is any size towel that has normal terry loops on one side, but is
sheared very closely on the other side, so that the sheared side looks more like
velvet than loops.
; Case pack: refers to the quantity, in dozens, that the mill packs a particular style
of towel. When shipping from the mill, a distributor can only ship in case pack
quantities; if shipping from their own warehouse, a distributor can ship in smaller
quantities (at a higher price to cover the extra handling), referred to as “broken
Generally, the smaller the product, the larger the case pack. For a given product,
the more institutional the item, the larger the case pack. Typical case packs are
25 dozen for wash cloths, 10 dozen for hand towels, and 5 dozen for both bath
towels and bath mats.
Retail towels have much smaller case packs, as low as ? dozen (3 each) for
premium bath towels. Imported towels may be sold in “bails” or “bail packs”.
These are not cardboard boxes like case packs, but rather burlap packages
compassed and tied together with bail string or wire. Often, imported bail packs
are quite large (200 dozen for wash cloths is common).
There are three basic quality levels of towels sold to institutional market: first quality, R.O.L. quality, and second quality.
First quality means exactly what it sounds like – the towels are free from all defects of
any kind, and are within all manufacturing tolerances regarding weight, size, color, etc., the towels are as the mill intended.
R.O.L. stands for “Run of Loom”. A synonym for this quality level is R.O.M., which stands for “Run of Mill”. These two levels mean the same thing, so I will refer to both
levels as simply “R.O.L.”
R.O.L. towels are made on the same machines as first quality towels, and are usually mostly first quality. The ONLY difference between an R.O.L. and a first quality towel is that first quality towels must pass on additional, final inspection step before being boxed and shipped.
Because R.O.L. towels do not have to go through this extra step, it costs the mill less money to sell the towel. Therefore, the mill sells R.O.L. towels at a 2% discount, which almost every distributor passes on to their clients.
Generally speaking, an R.O.L. shipment should consist of a least 90% first quality towels. HOWEVER, no U.S. mill or distributor does NOT guarantee this. Looking at the average manufacturing efficiency of the machinery arrives at the 90% figure. Obviously, the mill’s intention is to make only first quality towels, so as the mills buy more sophisticated machinery, the quality should increase. Please note however, that if your property wants first quality ONLY, do NOT purchase R.O.L.
Second quality towels indicate an item that was picked out during the inspection process. A “second” towel will NOT have any holes, rips, or tears; it will not have any defect that will appreciably affect the performance (function) or durability of the towel in any manner. Rather, it will have an eye appeal (cosmetic) defect. Typically, this includes a small area of missed or pulled loops, non-straight hems, a towel that is cut slightly out of shape, or a towel that is out of size or weight tolerance.
In summary, please note that first and R.O.L. quality are usually available for most items the mills manufacture. Some high volume items may only be available in R.O.L. to help meet demand, while some high-end towels may only be available first quality because the mill does not want to discount the product 2%. Seconds, however, are only sold on an “as available” basis.
Each quality level is labeled differently, and this is key to know when you are selling to an existing property. Ask the housekeeper to get a sample of the property’s towels, and determine if the property is being shipped what they think they are buying.
First quality will have the manufacture’s normal label. R.O.L. quality will have a similar
label, but the label will say R.O.L. (or R.O.M.) on it. Regarding seconds, most mills affix a paper stick-on label to seconds (to comply with U.S. label laws when the product is sold), but this label will usually fall off after one washing. Therefore, a second will
usually have no label on it. Also, some manufactures will sew on their normal label in a second, but then cut the label, so that the full brand name is not readable.
Today, R.O.L. quality is being phased out at major mills, except for crested, center name woven and other “unique” products. Most domestic manufacturers are selling first quality only on basic cams and dobbys.
There is much confusion regarding the content of institutional towels. Most labels will indicate an 86/14 content, which stands for 86% cotton and 14% polyester. This is the towel’s total fiber content by weight. This construction features a base warp (the base yarns running the length of the towel) of 35% cotton and 65% polyester, a weft (horizontal base yarns) of 100% cotton, and 100% cotton loops. Some towels use a 50/50 warp and weft, and may use a label slightly different than 86/14, but are still a blended construction. Note that the part that touches the skin is 100% cotton.
The high content of polyester used in the base warp is there for dimensional stability. The 86/14 products were engineered to withstand the high stresses of a commercial laundry’s chemicals and high temperatures. Considering strength, durability, and luxury, the 86/14 is the best value in an institutional towel. Any 100% cotton towel, from the least expensive import to the finest domestic retail towel, will not last as long in a commercial application as the same specification towel using the 86/14 construction.
Most towels will shrink more in the length than in the width. This is very important if you are on the phone with a property and they are physically measuring one of their towels to have you prepare a quotation. A used towel that measures 24X48 may have originally been a 24X50, so try and have the housekeeper work off old purchase orders and the property’s specifications. Also note that all terry product’s sizes are the finished size, the size after hemming.
Regarding cotton itself, there are many, many different grades, types, and qualities available. Most mills today blend their cotton to get the best features (strength, softness, durability, etc.) of these different types in one yarn. In the manufacturing process, the mills produce two general types of cotton: carded and combed.
Carded cotton is a high quality yarn used to make almost all institutional towels. The cotton is passed through processing machines, “carders,” which remove impurities and short stubbles in the fibers. Many people think combed cotton is longer, softer fibers as compared to carded cotton. This is not exactly true, but it is close. Combed cotton is cotton that has been processed additionally to remove more of the short fibers, leaving more of the longer, softer fibers.
Towels made from combed cotton will feel softer, and usually have a tendency to pill less than carded cotton towels. Due to the extra manufacturing time, combed cotton towels are more expensive than carded.
The gauge or thickness of the yarn is another important consideration in the construction of the towel. Also, the fiber can be a single yarn or a double yarn twisted. This can be very technical, and applies mostly when buying imported towels.
Most towels have one or more horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the towel that do not have any terry loops on them. These lines are called cam lines. Institutional towels usually have plain cam lines (just the base warp and weft of the towel). However, higher-end institutional and most retail towels have different decorations in this section. When the cam line is decorated, it is called a border. A decorative cam line is called a “dobby” border and a plain, institutional cam line is called a “plain” border. A dobby loom can weave cam or dobby towels, while a cam loom can only weave cam towels.
The cam line is purely cosmetic and does not affect the function of the towel in any manner. Cam lines were originally put on the towel to provide a convenient place to stamp or embroider the name of the property. This was done for both prestige and identification purposes, as many properties did not do their own laundry, so this identification was necessary.
Today, the cam line is still used out of tradition, for identification in the mill (the mill will use different width cam lines to differentiate similar towels), and for decoration. Many large, printed beach towels will not have any cam lines, to better show their printed designs.
Today, “crested” and “name woven” mean the same thing: the mill sets up the looms
with special “reeds” (or special computer programs) to manufacture the towels with terry loops absent in specific locations. The absent terry will spell out a word or a logo, and it is a permanent part of the towel. Crested used to mean a logo, and name woven used to mean letters, but they are now synonymous.
Please be aware that unless the mill happens to have a particular property’s name woven towels in stock at the time of an order, there are special terms, which the mill applies when ordering crested terry.
The initial order will be subject to a one-time set up charge, which covers the cost of setting up the loom to correctly and accurately manufacture the specific design on the towel.
Also, that first order, AND EVERY SUSEQUENT ORDER, is subject to the mill’s 20%
overs/unders/seconds clause. This is standard in the industry, and means that an order within mill tolerances MAY run up to 20% over or under the desired quantity (the customer must pay for any overage up to 20% at the normal price and must accept an order up to 20% short, paying for the amount shipped), and/or up to 20% of the order may be second quality (and the customer must pay for up to 20% in seconds at a REDUCED price).
Also, it should be noted that crested towels are very price/quantity sensitive – discounts
can be obtained for large orders (over 1,000 dozen per item).
The top and bottom of a towel will have a hem seam. This is because the towels are made on a large continuous roll, and are then cut individually.
In general terms, the hem can be a lock stitch or a chain (continuous) stitch. The advantage of a lock stitch hem is that if one part of the seam is pulled, the whole hem will not unravel. A chain stitch, if part of it is pulled, will unravel. This is an important durability feature, and most U.S. made towels feature lock stitch hems.
The selvage refers to the two long sides of the towel. The best type of selvage is what is called a “natural selvage” or “self-hem,” also referred to as a “true selvage” or “woven
selvage”. This refers to a side selvage that has no sewing – the terry stops and the
edge of the towel is the base cloth. Most U.S. mills have this type of machinery that produces this type of selvage.
However, almost all imported towels, and the lower end U.S. products, have a hemmed selvage, just like the top and bottom seams. This means that there is a much greater chance for these selvages to come unraveled, which will quickly destroy the towel.
Many of the towels are manufactured three or four to a width; therefore, you may see a towel (especially hand and bath towels), which have a natural selvage on one side and a hemmed selvage on the other side. This towel was on one of the far sides of the loom, and has a natural selvage on the side, which had no towel next to it and a hemmed selvage on the side, which had a towel next to it.
White, by far, is the most popular color towel sold for institutional use, and is over 90% of the institutional market. White has a connotation of cleanliness, can withstand the harsh chemicals and bleaches of a commercial laundry, and has a strong tradition in the hospitality industry. Today, most mills are using optical white bleaching to make white towels look even brighter.
Problems with colored towels include fading. When the operator of a property puts a new colored towel on the same towel bar with older colored towels, the older towels, while they may look fine themselves, appear to be worn and faded when compared with the new ones. Also, colors will vary slightly from mill dye lot to dye lot. Lastly, the darker and deeper the color a towel is dyed, the less absorbent that towel will be, as the dye stuffs permanently clog a portion of the pores of the cotton that absorb water.
However, some people feel that white towels give too much of an “institutional” feeling, and therefore want to warm up the room with colored towels. The only color really practical for hotel use is the closest to white – beige (also called champagne, ecru, bone,
natural, or vanilla). This color will give the best compromise between the performance of a white towel and the warmth of a color. All towels must be washed before use to rinse out sizing agents (starches) not taken out by the mill in the finishing process.
; Size: refers to the overall (cut) dimensions of the sheet, specified in inches, width
X length. Note below the section on size.
; Type: refers to the intended use of the sheet (what size bed it will fit). There are
many different sheet sizes available for one size bed, varying mostly in length.
Type can also mean flat or fitted, and percale or muslin, discussed below.
; Case Pack: refers to the quantity, in dozens, that the mill packs a particular style
of sheet. When shipping from the mill, a distributor can only ship in case pack
quantities; if shipping from their own warehouse, a distributor can ship in smaller
quantities (at a higher price to cover the extra handling), referred to as “broken
; Generally, the smaller the product, the larger the case pack. For a given product,
the more institutional the item, the larger the case pack. Typical case pack is 2
dozen for most sheets, and 6 dozen for pillowcases.
If a concept that applies to sheets has been clearly outlined in the towel section, it will not be discussed in detail again here.
There are two basic quality levels of sheets sold in the institutional market: first quality and second quality. (Note that there is no R.O.M. quality in sheets.)
Unlike towels, almost all sheets are first quality – seconds are not available that often.
This is because on a sheet, a defect is very easy to see because sheeting is a simple flat weave with fine yarns, while terry is three dimensional with greater error hiding capabilities. The eye will focus on any deviation from first quality. Also, almost any defect on a sheet will affect its durability and performance. It is for this reason that practically the entire institutional sheet market is first quality.
The majority of the sheets sold to the hospitality market are made from a blended yarn of 50% cotton and 50% polyester. This is called a “no-iron” content, as the polyester
fibers help give the sheet “memory” of what shape it is supposed to be in after enduring
a commercial laundry – a flat, wrinkle free surface. This “no-iron” feature mostly comes
from a resin finish applied to the product. When the care instructions are followed correctly, 50/50 sheets do hold up to their promise of a “no-iron” product. Overall, the
50/50 sheet is the perfect combination of cotton for hand, breathability, and comfort, and polyester for strength, extended life, and reduced processing costs.
Some imported sheets often have higher cotton content than the domestic products. 55% cotton/45% polyester, and similar 60/40 and 70/30 contents are common on imported sheets. This is because for most of the countries producing these sheets, they have to import polyester into their countries, which means for them, the polyester is a more expensive (and therefore less desirable) fiber than cotton.
The higher the cotton content beyond 50%, the more care (ironing, lower wash and dry temperatures. Color selection, etc.) a sheet will require. This is important to note as today, many boutique hotels are using 100% cotton products. Also, 100% cotton sheets will shrink more than 50/50 sheets, which can become a problem given the thicker beds being used today.
Like the 86/14 towel, the 50/50 sheet is a product geared especially for the hospitality market. It should be noted that many high-end retail sheets are 100% cotton, and even more exotic and expensive materials are used in the retail market.
Thread count refers to the number of yarns or threads per square inch after the product is fully manufactured. This number, usually expressed as a number following a capital “T” (for thread count), is one of the key determining factors in the quality and luxury (softness) of the sheet. A T-180 is called a “percale” sheet, and this is the standard
hospitality market sheet. AT-128 or T-130 is called a “muslin” sheet, and this is the
standard health care/institutional market item.
The higher the thread count, the finer (thinner) the yarns used and the closer together the yarns are woven. It is for this reason that high-end retail sheets (and sheets used by some boutique hotels) are often T-220, T-250, or even T-310.
There is some confusion in the market place with the terms muslin and percale. To meet government specifications, a percale sheet must have at least 180 threads per square inch after it is manufactured. This is important to note, as the sheet material will shrink during manufacturing, meaning there will be MORE thread per square inch after this shrinkage. The government specification on muslin is 128 threads, however, after washing, almost all T-128 and T-130 should be considered the same quality.
Some imported sheets will be labeled “T-172 PERCALE” or some other label that does
not make sense. These ARE not to be considered the same quality as domestic T-180 percale sheets, and if you are comparing domestic with imports, be sure to also consider the fiber content, hem quality, and dimensional stability of the import.
The “as sold size” of a sheet and the actual size are usually not the same. For Flat sheets, the standard in the industry is that they are sold by the “CUT SIZE”, the size of
the sheet before it is hemmed.
Therefore, for the three most popular hospitality size beds, FLAT sheet sizes are as follows:
MATTRESS SIZE/NAME FLAT SHEET SIZE (cut size)
54X80, Double XL 81X108
61X80, Queen 90X110
78X80, King 108X110
PLEASE NOTE that a sheet sold as an 81X110 will actually measure 81X105 if it has the standard 2 inch top and bottom hems (2 inches for the hems and a ? inch working loss for each hem). Also, the sizes above are just the most popular mattress/sheet combinations used. Double sheets are also available as 81X104 (actually measuring 81X99), 81X115 (actually measuring 81X110), etc.
When ordering sheets, be sure you know the property’s actual bed size. Be careful when working with twin beds – 39X72, 39X75, 39X80, and other sizes are common.
FITTED sheets are sold by “MATTRESS SIZE”. DO NOT ORDER FITTED SHEETS
WITHOUT FIRST GETTING AN ACTUAL BED SIZE. When ordering fitted sheets (or mattress pads), especially watch out for California King beds, which measure 72X84.