Tea towel

What Is a Tea Towel, Anyway? Different Ways to Use This Not-so-Basic Kitchen Cloth

Now, of course, you don’t have to get through a bag of White Lily to snag a new tea towel—you can find them just about anywhere, from airport souvenir shops to your neighborhood grocery.

What Is a Tea Towel?

For starters, it’s the unsung hero of the Southern household.

Betsy is the Senior Home and Features Editor at Southern Living. She writes about a veritable potpourri of topics for print and digital, from profiling Southern movers-and-shakers and celebrating family traditions to highlighting newsy restaurant openings and curating the annual holiday gift guide. Prior to joining the Southern Living team in 2017 as the style editor, she worked at Coastal Living as an assistant editor covering pets and homes.

If your house is anything like mine, you probably have a host of tea towels lying around: One by the kitchen sink, another hanging in the powder room, and five more tucked away in a drawer, ready to rotate when the others need washing.

But what actually makes a tea towel a tea towel, and why are they called tea towels in the first place? Here’s everything you need to know about this kitchen textile.

Clean kitchen towels stacked in a basket on the basket, selective focus

What is a Tea Towel?

The main difference comes down to the material. Unlike your run-of-the-mill, super-absorbent bath or hand towels, tea towels are generally flat-woven from linen or cotton. Instead of using a higher-pile material like terry cloth, a tea towel does not leave lint or streaks behind.

The History of the Tea Towel

While tea towels are nearly ubiquitous these days, the tea towel’s beginnings were far from humble. It’s thought that they first became popular in 18th century England when textiles became more easily accessible. Often made from soft linen, tea towels were a favorite accessory amongst the upper echelons of English society. The ladies of the house used them during tea service and for drying cherished china. (This was apparently one of the jobs they didn’t pass off to servants, as they didn’t want to risk any broken saucers. The horror!)

The linen tea towels were also a way for women to show off their decorative stitching skills, as they would embroider them to coordinate with the rest of their table linens.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and mass production in the 19th century, tea towels, like many things, became more widely available across the pond too. They could be made easily from cotton, which also democratized the dish-drying tool. Soon, tea towels moved from a flashy sign of luxury and wealth to a regular workhorse.

Repurposing Flour Sacks Into Tea Towels

Tea towels moved further into the American household vernacular with the arrival of the Great Depression, as quick-thinking homemakers would recycle flour sacks to embroider and use as tea towels. Flour companies wised up and started packaging their flour in patterned sacks. The rest, as they say, is history.

Modern Tea Towels

Now, of course, you don’t have to get through a bag of White Lily to snag a new tea towel—you can find them just about anywhere, from airport souvenir shops to your neighborhood grocery.

Yes, we’ve determined that tea towels are a tried and true workhorse, but you can also turn them into family heirlooms with help from a treasured hand-me-down recipe. Craft and print-on-demand websites have made it simple to use handwritten recipes or digitally written recipes to silk screen or print onto tea towels. This unique gift is a perfect way to give someone a practical yet extremely thoughtful gift.

What Is a Tea Towel, Anyway? Different Ways to Use This Not-so-Basic Kitchen Cloth

Also called a dish towel, this household staple can double as decor.

By Amanda Garrity Published: Jul 25, 2019

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Most homeowners have a drawer in their kitchen stuffed to the brim with tea towels of different shapes, sizes, and patterns. There’s a good reason why: When your kid leaves a few (too many) stray crumbs on the counter or you’re in search for last-minute dining room décor, these do-it-all kitchen cloths come in handy to wipe up any spills, dry dishes, and add a touch of elegance to your dining room table.

Okay, but exactly is a tea towel?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a tea towel as “a cloth for drying dishes.” Often made of linen, cloth, or a combination of the two, tea towels date back to England in the 18th century, when they were used to insulate tea pots at tea ceremonies (hence the name), dry fine china, and cover baked goods. During this time, people also used tea towels to practice embroidery, often gifting friends and family tea towels stitched with flowers, initials, or other designs. As the times changed, so have tea towels: By the 19th and 20th centuries, most tea towels were reportedly made with striped or checked cloth for a more decorative touch.

What’s the difference between a tea towel and a dish towel?

Call ’em tea towels, call ’em dish towels: The only time that you shouldn’t use the names interchangeably is when you’re using a towel made of terry cloth. By definition, tea towels are only made of linen or cotton, whereas dish towels can also be made of terry cloth. Both types of towels, however, are roughly the size of a hand towel, ranging from 16″ x 28″ to 18″ x 30″.