Marilyn Monroe by Andre de Dienes, 1953

What Can *You* Make From Three Bath Towels?

Another installment in my "Adventures in Vintage" series.

I posted this on the BDV Facebook Page a couple days ago:

You'd think I'd already know what I'd bought when I return from a buying expedition, right? Well, not always, or rather, not completely. 

Sometimes there's insufficient time/light/space/patience to assess each item fully. You get a gut feeling, and it's only once you get it back to the studio and give it all a good going-over that you see what's what. 

I just discovered something that I'd thought was "kinda interesting" is actually over-the-top neato. Blog-entry worthy. So... first into the wash, and then onto a blog post. 

Preview: What can YOU make from 3 bath towels?

Guesses included a skirt and top set, and a shower curtain. Close, but nope. So what was it?

First, some background on the previous owner.

Dorothy E.'s wardrobe was impressive. Clues told me she'd come to Atlanta from Southern California, where she worked closely with celebrities. She wore high-end labels from the finest stores and well-crafted home-sewn beauties, most of which were created using Vogue patterns.

She clearly took pride in her work. The fabrics are top notch, the finishing meticulous. Only the label and close inspection reveal whether she'd purchased a garment or made it herself. 

I'd bought armloads of her late-40s through early 70s dresses and separates. And I'd sold 17 of the items to another buyer before I'd even got my key in the ignition. As we quickly sorted through my haul, I set aside pieces I refused to part with, and gave my new acquaintance a shot at the rest. I easily gave up anything yellow. It looks awful on me, and (squee!) Dorothy and I are about the same size. 

One item I'd grabbed was unlike every other, and odd enough to pique my interest. My colleague turned her nose up at it, but I thought it had potential. It looked like some sort of ultra-plush dressing gown (that's a bathrobe you can wear beyond the bathroom, for you youngsters), but I'd figure it out later, when I could examine it closely.

And when I did, wow! I was even more impressed with Dorothy. Not only could she sew at a couture level, she was creative and seemed to have had a sense of whimsy, too. Check out, friends, the world's coolest bathrobe:

Robe Made from Towels at Better Dresses Vintage - main views

Sure, you can see its bold-narcissus renaissance-fair boho medieval fringed and tasseled ethnic fabulousness. But what you can't see is how soft, thick, thirsty, cozy, and plush it is. Beats the heck out of a Snuggie.

It was only when I'd turned it inside out to look for labels that I realized it was constructed from towels. Whole, uncut towels -- three of them -- with the edges serving as fringe at the hem and cuffs. Brilliant.

Tags on Towel Robe at Better Dresses Vintage

I brought it to show my husband, who was duly impressed. For one thing, you don't feel towels like this nowadays, unless you're staying with a sultan. Really, when's the last time you bought a towel (even a better brand at a nicer store) that survived more than a few years without fraying edges or unlooping loops? Towels of this quality will set you back $100 or more today. Each.

Check out how nicely this robe is made. The pattern is perfectly centered front and back, and across the shoulders. It's constructed kimono-style, and I'd guess the zipper was added after the towels had been joined. Don't you love how the brown stripe forms the side, underarm, and empire waist seams? Smooth cotton strengthens and protects the neck edge, and Dorothy added a tassel to the zipper pull.

Towel Robe Laid Flat - at Better Dresses Vintage  Towel Robe Details at Better Dresses Vintage

I wondered how this interesting robe had come to be. Had Dorothy seen the towels in a store and inspiration struck? Did she repurpose towels tossed aside when she redecorated the bath? And had she come up with the design on her own, or perhaps seen the project in a women's magazine, or used an actual pattern? Which came first -- the boldly patterned towels or the idea for the robe?

My husband looked at me funny when I announced, in all seriousness, "I'll just go back and ask her!" Quickly realizing the absurdity of my statement, I was once again struck by the disarming experience of missing someone I have never, and will never, know. It's happened so many times now, you'd think I'd be used to it. But I'm not. How I wish I could talk to Dorothy, and Elizabeth, and Mrs. Miller, and others I've yet to share with you. Instead, I must be content admiring and enjoying their beautiful, quirky, wonderful clothes.


Update: Our friend Jody (of the beloved and now-defunct Couture Allure), showed us this free pattern, pointing out that robes of this sort were popular in the late 60s and early 70s, in various lengths. Makes sense, as this would fit right in with all the crochet, macrame, and decoupage popular at the time. Still, I'd say that Dorothy's version takes the project from hippie chick to homespun chic!

Make It With Towels - Canon Free Pattern


Liza Dolensky

I love these things. I remember as a little girl my aunt made them, they are so practical. I looked for this pattern for some time before finding yours. I want to make one as a bathrobe…I hate fleece and love cotton terrycloth after a shower. They wash so nicely. Thanks for this post.

Liza Dolensky

I actually made one of these towel dresses and loved wearing it in the 60’s. Decided to see if I could find the pattern as I had forgotten some of the tricks to putting it together. My daughter has a pool and I thought my two grand daughters might like a towel dress to keep them warm after swimming. Thanks for sharing your find.

Liza Dolensky

My aunt taught me to sew this robe 50 years ago. It was my first lesson and have been sewing ever since.

Liza Dolensky

My mom made these for us, and I made them for my kids…i thought that was the end of it, but my daughter called today asking if I remembered how! Thanks for the great post!

Liza Dolensky

In the late sixties I went to JC Penneys and bought me three orange/ yellow towels and made this very robe—I have thought about this robe often and wondered how to make one again - now thanks to you and this post I can finally make another—-thanks for the pattern anda trip down memory lane

Liza Dolensky

Can anyone give me instructions for this? I had one made for me in 69 as well for Christmas. I want to make them for my girls, but have no clue how to start..The one I had, had no zip just went over my head,,great for after work and after showers. I wore mine out

Liza Dolensky

another question.. my daughters come in 3 sizes med. lrg and xtra would you know what size to use? Im assuming beach towels for the med. and bath sheets for the others?

Liza Dolensky

Beverly, hello! Thanks for reading the blog and for your comment.

I think your idea of using larger or smaller towels depending on the recipient makes good sense.

For actual directions, I’d search eBay for Cannon’s “Make It With Towels” booklet, pictured above. There might also be a tutorial on YouTube if you hunt around a bit.

I’ve never made one, but from what I can see, it involves 3 large towels as follows:

Fold one towel in half, lengthwise, arrange it horizontally to create the empire bodice and sleeves in one. Figure out the center and cut a semicircle in the fold at the top to create a hole for the head. You’ll need to bind or otherwise finish the raw edge around the neck hole.

Then, you’ll use one vertically placed towel for the back, and another for the front. Sew it all together at the empire waist and the side seams.

Then, you can either leave it as is and pop it over your head, or you can cut it down the center front and install a zipper or fashion a coordinating belt and you’re done!

If you give it a go, come back and let us know how it works out!

Good luck!

Liza Dolensky

Thanks to all of you for your lovely comments. I appreciate your taking the time to read my blog and to leave your thoughts and share your stories. xo

Liza Dolensky

I made one of these in 1962, a jacquard grey on black design. I didn’t like the front closing; however while thinking about ways to avoid this, One day I found an old sleeping bag and got the bright Idea to use the long zipper to close one side and one sleeve seam. Slightly weird, but it made a sophisticated dress great for wearing long necklaces with. I had a rounded neck, but later re-cut it to be square in the front. Loved it.

Liza Dolensky

My sister would totally fall in love with this robe. I wish you sold these.

Liza Dolensky

My mother -in-law gifted me one mother’s day with a beautiful rose colored one she had made . I’ve been trying to find one with no luck. I wore it til it literally fell apart!

Liza Dolensky

I am posting my comment in December 2019, with the hopes you will see it. My first grade teacher (in Downey, CA – a suburb of Los Angeles) made matching towel “dresses” for me and my mom in 1967 as a thank you to my mom for being “room mother.” Ours were blue flowered on top with (matching) solid blue skirts. I often think of those dresses wishing I had another, and now I can! Thank you so much for posting this!!

Liza Dolensky

My grandmother made me one when I was maybe 12 years old. She used 2 hand towels for the bodice and sleeves ( one in front, one in back) leaving an opening between the two for my head (like a boatneck). Since the towels edges were finished no binding was required. The bottom was made from two bath towels. I would have worn it out but figured I probably outgrew it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.

Liza Dolensky

I would love to have the instructions or pattern. I also make one of these years ago, and would love to have one now.

Liza Dolensky

My mom sewed one of these back in the early 70s I remember she got the pattern from the newspaper, when they had a little sewing section. I would love one myself, going to keep my eye out for towels and give it a try.

Liza Dolensky

I am very happy to have found your site ! !!
In 1964—65—they were the hit in at Home or bath fashion. In San Francisco, Gump‘s, I Magnin, City of Paris sold them. Gump‘s even had the robes in their Christmas catalog. I made several of them. In those days, the bath towels were shorter than those you can buy today. You might need to shorten them. For the Empire seam, measure your bust circumference and add 3 inches.. they are fun to make

Liza Dolensky

I googled “robe with three towels” and found your post. It was fun to read the story of your discovery and questions. :-)

Cannon made towels, so their “free instructions” were a bigtime advertisement. :-) The pattern was in women’s magazines in the 1960s, and the first time I saw it, it was for a swim-suit cover-up, so not the largest towels, but more an elbow/knee-length. They would not have objected to more people recommending towels as fabric.

I had never seen anyone add a zipper, but only pull-over versions.

Nice! Nice post, great info. I enjoyed the comments, too.

Liza Dolensky

My mother made these robes for all 3 of us girls in the late 60’s. I have a photo of all of us wearing them on Christmas morning. I was inspired when I saw the picture again so I’ve purchased 3 towels (black & gold) and am planning on making an updated 2022 version soon. I haven’t sewn for years but I’m pretty sure this a great place to start again. Can’t wait!

Liza Dolensky

My mother made up swim suit covers for the pool just like this when I was little.

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