Expert Hand: The World of Japanese Towel Sommeliers
Most of us will come across a sommelier at least once in our lives. Traditionally found in wine bars and elegant restaurants, they are thoughtful, analytical types with the ability to discern that sets apart the exceptional from the ordinary. Take that same commitment to quality and apply it to the world of common household objects, and you get what is known in Japan as a towel sommelier.
Just like a wine sommelier, a towel sommelier is a professional expert in towels. They often work with towel manufacturers, stores, and private clients to advise them on how to improve a towel's design to selecting the perfect towel, to suggestions. To gain that level of senior expertise, they undertake rigorous study for months to learn every aspect of towel manufacturing and design. Towel sommeliers are expected to be experts in everything from weaving to production, and to inhabit the headspace of both a manufacturer and an ordinary customer. They are integral parts of the Japanese towel industry because their feedback helps designers innovate beyond the common terry cloth towel. Think about it: wine sommeliers are indispensable bridges between product and consumer, which is why restaurants often employ them not just as important members of the staff but as markers of a brand's careful attention to quality. In a similar vein, manufacturers that employ towel sommeliers know that they are investing not just in product expertise but also in prestige. Currently only Japanese brands work with towel sommeliers in their product development stages, in direct contrast to some competitors' cheaper, one-size-fits-all approaches.
HOW TOWEL SOMMELIERS BECAME A STAPLE IN JAPAN
Over 60% of Japanese towels (including our collection) are produced in Imabari, Japan. For more than a century, Imabari has been a center of manufacturing for towels of superior quality, a place where over 200 factories work to perfect and advance all aspects of weaving, dyeing, and production. Today, the towel industry is one of the main economic drivers in the region. To ensure that Imabari remained a leader in towel innovation, a collective of local manufacturers founded a towel sommelier program in 2007. The program has built the world's first dedicated group of towel specialists that help companies and consumers alike navigate the complex world of towels.
HOW TO BECOME A TOWEL SOMMELIER
All aspiring towel sommeliers are required to study for, take, and pass the Towel Sommelier Qualifying Exam. The exam is held twice a year in either Imabari, Tokyo, or Osaka. To pass the exam, students must show mastery in topics as varied as the history of towels, the entire manufacturing process, distribution, and the best ways to advise customers. The exam consists of fifty multiple choice questions and students have one and a half hours to complete it. A score of 80 or above is necessary to pass and, on average, 59% of applicants become official sommeliers every year.
HOW TOWEL SOMMELIERS PICK THE PERFECT TOWEL
In addition to learning every conceivable detail about towel manufacturing, towel sommeliers are trained in selecting the perfect towels for a customer's individual needs and preferences. The general process of consulting with a customer is as follows (in order of most to least importance):
- Color and Pattern - The most personal consideration when purchasing towels is purely aesthetic. People can expect to live with their towels for many years, and so, ensuring the design and color matches their decor is especially important. Coordinating the towels with the existing bathroom linens (bathmat, shower curtain, etc.) or choosing neutral, complementary colors is a safe first step.
- Feel and Weave - Personal preference often comes into play here. Some people prefer a fluffier towel for a cozy post-shower moment, while people with a minimalist lifestyle may prefer slim towels that pack away easily. It is the job of the towel sommelier to match personality with product.
- Intended Purpose - Consider the intended use of the towels. A kitchen towel fulfills different needs than a pool towel, and a towel sommelier will be able to determine the best fabrics, weaves, and styles for a person's individual lifestyle.
- Size and Volume - Japanese towels come in many different sizes. A towel sommelier can offer suggestions and point you in the direction of a towel that works with your height for a personalized fit.
- Price - Purchasing an entirely new set of towels for adults, kids, and guests can become expensive. Towel sommeliers work with customers to determine the best possible options within a person's budget.
Though their services are not as familiar as those of culinary sommeliers', towel sommeliers hold an enormous influence over one of the most used household items in the world. Their expertise elevates the humble towel into the foray of fine living, transforming it from bath staple into an example of everyday luxury. A Japanese towel, then, is not just the simple product of a machine, but rather a scrutinized, perfected product that passes through a few hands (a designer's, a manufacturer's, a sommelier's) before it gets to yours.
WORDS BY SAM GEAN