What is a tea towel?

What is a tea towel?

Every once in a while I encounter someone who asks, "what the heck is a tea towel"? To me, it’s an old-fashioned way of saying kitchen towel or bar towel, but it really is a bit different than that. Tea towels originated in the 18th-century in England. They were towels that were absorbent, usually made of linen, not terry cloth, and used while serving tea. They could be wrapped around a tea pot to insulate it, catch drips when poured, and then used to dry the fine china when washed.

Tea Towel History

Tea towels were originally designed to match a home's table linens or were a way for women to show off their embroidery skills. Once they began to be mass produced during the industrial revolution, they became much more popular and found in common households as well. During the Great Depression, resourceful women would use the cloth sacks that flour came in to create tea towels as well as clothing. Once flour companies realized how their sack were being utilized, they began printing their sacks with pleasing patterns selling in order to increase sales. These sacks became a commodity to be saved and traded and are even sought out and collected today.

Humble tea towels were not only used by economical housewives, but by starving artists as well. Vincent van Gogh was known to use whatever materials he could find to paint on, when he was low on supplies or resources, including tea towels. One of his works painted on a tea towel sold for several million dollars.

Tea Towels Today

Today, tea towels are found in kitchens and homes throughout the world for a variety of purposes. The are not only an economical choice, but as people move away from using paper products, tea towels are an eco-friendly choice as well. Tea towels can be used for so much more than a decorative object hanging off your stove or for drying dishes. Try using them in variety of ways, such as:

1. Wrap a gift

Tea towels make easy gift wrap for a variety of odd shaped items, for kitchen gifts such as cutting or cheese boards, or a bottle of wine.

2. Give as a gift

Tea towels have been passed down through the generations as heirlooms, particularly family or embroidered ones. They are not only a practical gift but they are a sentimental one too for a wedding or housewarming gift.

3. Wrap baked goods

I always place a tea towel over my dough as it rises to keep it moist. But you can keep your rolls, muffins and breads warm by wrapping them in a tea towel too. Using a tea towel as eco-friendly wrapping is a great way to give away your baked goods as a gift.

4. Decorate your guest bathroom

I prefer to hang a tea towel in place of a standard hand towels in my guest bathroom. It not only adds color and style, but they are larger and hold up better when I have a party or lot of guests over.

Tandem For Two Tea Towels

5. Decorate a table

Tea towels can make a great oversized placemat or napkin for a picnic, dinner party or outdoor barbecue.

6. Use as a hot pad

A folded tea towel can always be used in a pinch as a hot pad on a table. Then you can place your hot dishes or baked goods on the tea towel to let it cool down or not damage the table surface.

7. Line a serving tray

I line a serving tray with a tea towel to catch drips and spills. I also use one to line a tray when creating an appetizer or charcuterie board and it makes clean up that much easier.

8. Drying rack for wet dishes

Instead of trying to store a bulky drying rack under my sink, I instead opt for a tea towel. Lay one on your counter and place your clean dishes and utensils there to dry.

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