Cup Towel vs. Dish Towel

Kitchen towels come in many varieties and go by different names like cup towels, dish towels, tea towels, and more.

Cup Towel vs. Dish Towel

But what exactly are the differences between these types of towels?

What is a Kitchen Towel?

A kitchen towel is a broad term that refers to any kind of towel that is primarily used for kitchen tasks like drying dishes, hands, and wiping counters.

Kitchen towels are designed to be more durable and absorbent than regular towels. They typically have a thicker weave and are hemmed with reinforced stitching so they can withstand frequent use and machine washing.

There are many different types of kitchen towels that all serve various purposes in the kitchen:

  • Dish towels – For drying dishes
  • Tea towels – For drying glassware and silverware
  • Flour sack towels – Multi-use drying and cleaning
  • Hand towels – For drying hands
  • Bar mops – For wiping counters and spills

Having an assortment of kitchen towels on hand helps keep your kitchen clean and organized. It’s recommended to have multiple towels readily available so you always have a fresh one when needed.

Common Kitchen Towel Materials

Kitchen towels can be constructed from a variety of materials:


Linen is a traditional fiber used to make tea towels and other delicate kitchen textiles. It comes from the flax plant and is valued for its lightweight, lint-free, and quick-drying properties.

Linen has a smooth surface that won’t scratch fine china or glassware. It makes great tea towels, napkins, table runners, and appliance covers.


Cotton is the most popular material for modern kitchen towels. It is soft yet durable, and the dense weave makes cotton towels very absorbent.

Cotton towels can withstand frequent machine washing without losing their shape or becoming scratchy. They are gentle enough for hand drying and cleaning dishes.

Organic cotton kitchen towels are a great eco-friendly option.

Terry Cloth

Terry cloth has looped piles that create air pockets, making this fabric ultra-absorbent. It quickly soaks up large amounts of water.

The fluffy texture gives terry cloth towels a scrubbing effect for cleaning. But the lint can transfer to surfaces, so terry cloth is better suited for hand towels than for drying dishware.

Most Absorbent Kitchen Towel Material

The most absorbent kitchen towels are made from terry cloth. The looped fabric construction traps moisture effectively. A high cotton content will also maximize absorbency.

Flour sack towels and huck towels made from densely woven cotton are also very absorbent options. They don’t have the scrubbing texture but won’t leave lint behind.

Linen absorbs quickly but doesn’t hold as much liquid overall compared to terry and cotton towels.

Key Takeaway: Terry cloth is the most absorbent but cotton is best for lint-free drying.

Tea Towels vs. Dish Towels

Tea towels and dish towels are two common types of multipurpose kitchen towels that are frequently mixed up. But there are some notable differences between them:


  • Tea towels originated in 18th century England to protect fine china and stemware during afternoon tea service.
  • Dish towels emerged in early 20th century America when thrifty housewives repurposed spare cotton flour sacks for kitchen tasks.


  • Traditional tea towels are made from a lint-free fabric like linen or cotton.
  • Dish towels are usually terry cloth or huck weave cotton.


  • Tea towels have a thin, smooth surface and delicate drape.
  • Dish towels tend to be thicker and looped for scrubbing.

Intended Uses

  • Tea towels are meant for gently drying glassware and silver without scratching.
  • Dish towels are used for hand drying and scrubbing pots and kitchen surfaces.

While tea towels and dish towels have some crossover in utility, their origins and materials make them better suited for different kitchen jobs.

Tea Towels vs. Flour Sack Towels

Flour sack towels share a lot of similarities with tea towels:

  • Both are made from tightly woven cotton.
  • They have thin, flat surfaces without terry cloth scrubbing texture.
  • Gentle enough for drying glassware and silverware.
  • Absorbent and fast-drying.
  • Can be used for straining, wrapping food, and crafting.

The main differences come down to origins and thickness:

  • Tea towels originated in Britain for afternoon tea service.
  • Flour sack towels were repurposed cotton sacks first made into towels in America.
  • Tea towels tend to be a lighter fabric while flour sacks are sturdier.

Either works well, so the choice comes down to personal preference on thickness and patterns. Vintage style flour sack towels evoke nostalgic farmhouse appeal.

Brief History of Kitchen Towels

To understand the origins of different kitchen towels, let’s look at a quick historical overview:

  • 1800s – Decorative tea towels emerge in Victorian England for afternoon tea service. Wealthy ladies embroider them to show off needlework.
  • Early 1900s – Thrift housewives in America upcycle spare cotton sacks into versatile flour sack towels and cloths.
  • 1920s – Towel manufacturers design decorative patterns on cotton sacks to entice housewives to buy more flour.
  • 1930s – The Great Depression popularizes using spare cotton sacks for all kinds of household linens.
  • 1940s – Patriotic flour sack towel patterns emerge during World War 2 to support American troops.
  • 1950s – Appliance colors and mid-century patterns inspire new kitchen linen designs and colors.
  • 1960s – Terri cloth leads to thicker, plusher dish towels and hand towels.
  • Today – Vintage inspired kitchen textiles remain popular. Sustainability spurs interest in reusable organic cotton towels.

How To Use Tea Towels

Keep these tips in mind to make the most of decorative tea towels:

  • Line serving trays or bread baskets to absorb drips and add decoration.
  • Use as napkins for informal dining to add color.
  • Wrap tea pots, scones, baked goods to retain heat and moisture.
  • Dry and polish fine china, stemware, and silver without leaving lint.
  • Protect surfaces from hot pans. Fold into layers for a trivet.
  • Bundle silverware bundles in a tea towel liner to prevent scratches.
  • Wrap gifts in pretty tea towels as an eco-friendly alternative to tissue paper.
  • Display as wall art or frame favorite vintage tea towels.
  • Craft tea towel pillows, doll clothes, bags, aprons, and more.

How To Use Dish Towels

Dish towels have some crossover uses with tea towels but here are their strength areas:

  • Dry dishes, pots, pans. Thicker weave is more durable for frequent dish drying.
  • Wipe down counters, appliances, and other kitchen surfaces.
  • Clean up spills and messes quickly.
  • Wash and scrub dishes by hand. Terry texture helps scrub.
  • Dry hands after washing up. Hang near sink for handy access.
  • Use as improvised potholders to handle hot cookware. Fold into layers if needed.
  • Toss in tool buckets, lunch bags, and picnics for quick clean up.

Rotate dish towels frequently and wash after each use to prevent bacteria build up. Have multiple dish towels on hand so a spare is always ready when the current one gets wet.

How To Use Flour Sack Towels

Some clever ways to use flour sack towels to their full potential:

  • Line bread baskets and fruit bowls. Absorbs moisture and retains freshness.
  • Use as cheese cloth or for straining foods like berries, yogurt, nut milk.
  • Cover rising dough and homemade yogurt. Breathable weave prevents drying out.
  • Wrap sandwiches, snacks, and baked goods for mess-free portability.
  • Dry and store produce. Keeps greens and herbs crisp in the fridge.
  • Clean and dry tools after garden work. Thoroughly wash towels after to remove dirt.
  • Dust and clean surfaces. Can be laundered after and reused.
  • Make DIY produce and shopping bags. Sturdy cotton construction carries weight.
  • Sew projects like aprons, market totes, doll clothes, rag rugs, and quilts.

The tighter weave makes flour sack towels more versatile than terry cloth dish towels for crafting and household uses.


Are tea towels and dish towels the same thing?

While sometimes used interchangeably, tea towels and dish towels originated differently and work best for different kitchen tasks based on their materials. Tea towels are meant more for drying and polishing while dish towels are better for hand drying and surface cleaning.

What’s the best material for kitchen towels?

For versatility and performance, cotton is generally the best kitchen towel material. It’s soft yet durable, absorbent, and affordable. Choose organic cotton or linen for a lint-free towel that won’t scratch dishes.

How often should you wash kitchen towels?

It’s best to wash kitchen towels after each use to prevent bacteria growth. Have multiple towels on hand so you always have a clean spare ready. Wash dish towels separately from general laundry using hot water and bleach.

What can you make from vintage flour sack towels?

The tightly woven and durable cotton construction makes vintage flour sack towels great for crafting projects like quilts, doll clothes, tote bags, aprons, and more. They can also be upcycled into rag rugs, produce bags, and other household items.

Are flour sack towels good for dishes?

Yes, the flat weave cotton is gentle enough for hand drying glassware and dishes without leaving lint behind. Flour sack towels are absorbent and multipurpose for drying, straining, wrapping, and cleaning kitchen items.


Kitchen towels are available in a wide range of fabrics, weaves, and sizes to suit an array of functions. Different types like tea towels, flour sack towels, and dish towels all have their own origins and ideal uses.

Focus on softer, lint-free cotton and linen towels for direct dish and glassware drying to prevent scratches. Terry cloth works well for hand drying and scrubbing due to its ultra-absorbent piled construction.

Evaluate your needs and kitchen tasks, then stock up on a variety of towel types and designs to keep your kitchen clean and stylish. Rotate towels frequently and launder after each use to maximize freshness and prevent bacteria. With the right assortment of quality kitchen towels, you’ll be ready to tidy up any cooking or baking mess!

Emma Kellam
Emma Kellam

I'm Emma, and I run Towels Edition, a website for fellow home goods enthusiasts who, like me, are passionate about textiles. After working in high-end retail, I was amazed by how little most people (myself included!) know about all the towel options out there.

I research and write all the content myself. Whether it's specialized towels like bar mops, Turkish cotton production methods, or comparing hair towel absorbency, I cover it. My goal is to share my knowledge and enthusiasm to help others.

Running Towels Edition allows me to constantly expand my own expertise too. I love learning about innovations in bamboo fabric or ideal bath towels. It's so rewarding to receive emails thanking me for recommendations that improved my readers' routines.

I want Towels Edition to be the ultimate online towel resource, making this overlooked necessity far more fascinating. My aim is to open people's eyes to how specialty towels can thoroughly enhance hygiene, cleaning, recreation and self-care.