I first came across one in a hotel many years ago.

I’d returned to my room late, massively jetlagged and ready to plank on the bed. As I turned on the bedside light, I suddenly became aware of a human-sized shape sitting nonchalantly in a chair in a corner. He had his legs crossed and was reading a book. My book.

I was startled and my first instinct was to run, until a nanosecond later my brain registered that he was uncannily white. Strangely fluffy. And very, very still.

He was made of towels.

I’d come across bathroom towels arranged in fan shapes or coiled like snakes but I’d never seen a sculpture on this scale. It was funny and clever but also a bit disturbing. And as much as I didn’t love the idea of sleeping while this shadowy figure sat by the bed, I didn’t have the heart to tear “him” apart. Someone had made him with imagination and care.

Why, I wasn’t so sure.

Since then, I’ve run into many kinds of towel art in hotels and on cruises. Intertwined kissing swans. Baby elephants. Lotus flowers. Hanging monkeys. Bouquets of roses. Just last month, staying at the five-star Ritz-Carlton Millenia in Singapore, I was greeted every night with a different piece of towel origami, including an incredibly cute bunny with tiny roses in her ears. The hotel’s towel game was very good.

I’ve always associated towel sculptures with resorts and cheaper hotels, mostly because twisting towels into animals is kind of kitsch. You rarely see a towel monkey on a bed in a five-star European hotel. But I’ve noticed it has become quite a craze lately, certainly throughout Asia. And while I scoffed at towel art for years, I now look at it affectionately.

Unlike other hotel amenities, such as the terrible bowl of underripe, inedible fruit (why do hotels keep doing this?), towel art doesn’t feel like an impersonal gesture. It’s made by a human for a start, and is sometimes accompanied by a hand-written note from the housekeepers. It’s a connection to the anonymous and usually invisible staff who  clean and tidy your room and, in the best cases, organise your life, picking up clothes, laying out the clutter of makeup neatly, book-marking books and winding charger cords into neat rolls.

True, it’s a gentle way for the housekeepers to remind guests to tip them before they leave, as it’s a gesture that makes them less anonymous to the guest. Because the animals are bound to give the recipients a smile (except for spooky life-sized visitors and the creepy lizard-snake that greeted me once in Fiji), surely the makers deserve a gratuity for their inventiveness?

I’ve often wondered if the maids enjoy making the sculptures or if it’s just another chore, like cleaning the bathroom mirrors. They’ve never been around for me to ask. But I did discover that creative towel folding classes are a part of many hospitality courses worldwide, including a two-day course at a game lodge training school in South Africa, which teaches “hippo towel art’ as part of its towel menagerie.

The Thais have long celebrated National Elephant Day by placing elephant towels on hotel beds, but it’s Carnival Cruises which deserves the credit for popularising towel art. As the story goes, in the late 90s a member of the housekeeping staff from Thailand started folding passengers’ clothes into the shape of animals and the guests loved it. The crew soon moved on to towels.

These days, towels in staterooms might represent a destination – koalas and kangaroos for Australia, for instance. Due to guests’ interest in how to do the folding at home, classes have become a popular activity on board cruise ships.

Carnival has published a book, Carnival Towel Creations: 40 Designs, which is 87 pages long. Not to be outdone, Holland America published its own book, Towel Creations. If you’re really into it, I found plenty of instruction videos on You Tube and TikTok.

Norwegian Cruise Lines, however, has thrown in the towel. (I borrowed that terrible pun, sorry.) Back in 2019 the company decided not to automatically create towel animals for guests, citing the excess water usage from washing and drying all those surplus towels.

Although animals are often created from a hotel room or stateroom’s daily allocation of towels, the problem is a simple one – no one has the heart to unravel a towel bunny and use it.

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