To refer to the thorth as just a bath towel is a gross injustice to its spectrum of usage.

More than just a bath towel An ode to the Kerala thorth
Features Handloom Tuesday, February 02, 2021 - 15:21

The handy Indian cotton towel is known by different names across states. Up north, it is called the gamcha, a checked piece of cloth. In Tamil Nadu, it is the vibrant thundu which is woven in blues, greens and oranges. Come down to Kerala and it becomes the ‘thorth mundu’ — a light bath towel with dyed corners which has a place in every Malayali's wardrobe.  

To refer to the thorth as just a bath towel is a gross injustice to its spectrum of usage. The porous, open weave fabric is so versatile that it performs multiple functions within and outside the house.

In rural Kerala, with two coconuts tied on either side, the thorth is turned into a training float for kids to learn swimming. The airy fabric is used to ferment pickles by wrapping it over jars. 

Thorth on a rock near a pond 

Back in the day, women wearing a blouse and mundu (traditional dress of Kerala) would quickly throw a thorth over their chest to welcome unexpected visitors. Farmers and farm-help still tightly wrap a thorth around their heads for relief from the sun, and coconut pickers of the state use the rough towels for grip while climbing trees.

Despite being woven in handloom units just like the Kerala kasavu saree and mundu, the thorth has never attracted the imagination of buyers. Yet these towels are so intrinsic to the Malayali way of life that it is used in rituals and funerals, where no other fabric can be used. It is also ideal for a region that sees months-long rains and perpetual humidity as it dries fast and absorbs moisture like no other cloth.

At a thorth handloom unit 

To understand just how intrinsic the thorth is to the Malayali's identity, one need only observe the house of a non-resident Keralite. Growing up in a Malayali family in Chennai, this writer's house underwent an urban makeover in the mid-2000s, which meant giving away some things brought from Kerala. 

Over time, the steel 'pathrams' made way for airtight glass jars and Tupperware bowls and steel plates were restricted to family only meals. The utility heavy Godrej steel cupboards brought from Kerala were junked for being too big. In its place, came delicate Chettinad style wardrobes and breakfronts. Even the otherwise veshti wearing grandfather had a makeover and slipped on some shorts and a T-shirt. But despite these changes, the thorth mundu stayed put, folded into neat rectangles  and stacked one on top of the other in the rear corner of a cupboard. Clearly, in the battle between the fancier Turkey towel and the thorth, the latter had won. 

However, these towels never get their due credit and this is what some designers are trying to change. Indu Menon, who started Kara Weaves back in 2007, is on a mission to make the thorth more mainstream by using it to make kaftans, bathrobes, and adding some prints and designs to the fabric.

Diversifying the thorth 

"What I love about the thorth is that it can be used to its last shred, to wipe down kitchen floors or the dining table after a meal. That's how broad its uses are," she explains. 

With Kara Weaves, Indu places bulk orders at weaving units in Kannur and Kanjiramattom  with instructions on the designs she wants. Her collection includes airy kaftans, straight line tops, resort wear, beach cover-ups with both thorth and finer cotton fabric, scarfs etc. Kara also has nursing scarfs for breastfeeding mothers. 

Tea towels with thorth fabric 

"We make thorths by incorporating colours and designs. Sometimes it is coloured stripes and borders and other times simple designs. This we turn into table clothes, towels, cake cover, tea towels, aprons, dressing gowns and much more.  The products that can be made with the fabric are endless," Indu says. Kara also plans to introduce kids-wear with the thorth. 

Towels using thorth fabric 

As adding designs requires more skill, Indu's venture pays the weavers a premium to ensure that they receive a good margin, and do not struggle to make ends meet. 

"While weaving, they have to keep in mind where the stripes come and when to change colours etc, which requires more skilled labour. Hence, our products cost more than the regular thorth as we pay the weavers a premium," she adds. 

Dying traditional designs 

While new designs have arrived in the market, some of the old patterns are seeing a slow decline. Traditional thorth designs include a Puliyila Kara or a thin border running across the towel, or a Chutti Patt, which is an arrowhead pattern inlaid in the edge.  

Weaving Kerala Thorth 

"The Chutti is very difficult to weave as it requires strength and precision. These days they are not available too often in the market," Indu says. These old designs were woven to identify different towels and ensure that no mix-up happened. 

No fitted clothes 

Kara Weaves does not make fitted clothes with the thorth. 

"The kind of weave used to make the thorth is called basket weave —  similar to how baskets are made. Two yarns are crossed against each other to make the fabric more porous. This means that the seams of the thorth will lack strength and hence not much stitching can be done with the fabric," she explains. 

Weaving Kerala thorth in the basket weave style 

There's a big demand for Indu's thorths in both the US, where her daughter promotes the brand, as well as back in Kerala. "A lot of people who want to stick to the thorth but also desire pretty products visit our online store and order tea towels etc. With this, my dream of bringing the thorth from the backdrop to the living and dining rooms has become a reality," she says.

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.