Certain fibrous plants such as flax or hemp can be woven into cloth, but only after the fibers have been painstakingly combed out and twisted into a usable thread. Part of the combing process yields a tousled mass of light yellow fiber known as tow. Because these pale and tangled fibers resemble fine blond human hair, the term tow head is often applied to natural blondes, especially young children.
This term should not be considered an insult, since it strictly refers to the flaxen quality of a person's hair. A young, fair-haired boy might be distinguishable from a sibling because of his hair color, so others may describe him as a towhead. Sometimes, the unruly quality of a young blond's hair may also earn him the honor of the nickname.
Many people envy the light tones and curliness of a true towhead's hair. Very young boys with exceptionally light and curly hair are often compared favorably to cherubs, angelic beings often portrayed in religious art as fair-haired and innocent. While some children's hair color may darken over time, a few do retain the qualities into adulthood.
The word "tow" is Germanic in origin, and refers to the fibers often used to create burlap sacks for crop collection and storage. In fact, some people who live in rural communities still refer to burlap bags as tow sacks. Tow sacks made from flax or hemp did have a distinctly yellow or tan appearance, although not always as blond as the expression implies.
Other shades of blond could be dishwater, "dirty," or platinum. A person with jet black hair could be described as raven-haired. Some redheads are considered "carrot tops" or flame-haired. Some sources suggest the description towhead has largely fallen out of common use in recent years, but it can still be heard in more rural regions of the country.