Tea towels are a versatile kitchen essential with a long and interesting history. These thin, absorbent cloths made of cotton or linen can be used for drying dishes, wrapping food gifts, decorating your kitchen, and much more.
Read on to learn all about what tea towels are, where they come from, and creative ways to use them in your home.
A Brief History of Tea Towels
The term “tea towel” originated in 18th-century England. Wealthy households used these soft linen cloths during afternoon tea service to keep teapots warm and dry fine bone china. Tea towels were treasured items often embroidered with decorative stitches.
In early 20th century America, thrifty homemakers repurposed cotton flour sacks as dish towels. Flour companies started printing charming designs on their sacks, kickstarting a trend. These vintage-inspired flour sack towels remain popular today for their soft, lint-free texture.
What Makes a Tea Towel Different?
Tea towels are made of a lightweight, absorbent fabric like linen or cotton. They are around the size of a hand towel.
Dish towels are often terry cloth or microfiber. They tend to be a bit smaller and not as decorative.
While people use these terms interchangeably, a true tea towel has a specific look and feel. The lightweight fabric makes them ideal for drying delicate items and adding charm to your kitchen decor.
Creative Ways to Use Tea Towels
Beyond drying dishes, tea towels have many clever uses:
- Line a basket – Place a tea towel inside a basket to keep muffins or bread warm. The breathable fabric prevents sogginess.
- Dry produce – Gently pat salad greens or herbs dry using a tea towel. It’s perfect for delicate veggies.
- Kitchen helper – Drape a towel over your shoulder when cooking. Use it to wipe hands, grab hot pans, and cover rising dough.
- Lint-free glassware drying – The tight weave doesn’t leave lint, streaks, or scratches on glassware.
- Hand towel – Hang a printed tea towel in the kitchen or bathroom for decoration and drying hands.
- Eco gift wrap – Wrap bread, wine, or small gifts in a tea towel. Tie it up with a ribbon for easy reusable wrapping.
- Table linens – Use tea towels as napkins or place them under serving platters. The patterns dress up your table.
- DIY curtains – Clip tea towels to a tension curtain rod for quick, cute kitchen curtains.
Caring for Your Tea Towels
With regular use, care is needed to keep tea towels looking their best:
- Wash frequently – Tea towels easily absorb smells and stains. Wash them often using hot water and vinegar in the rinse cycle.
- Dry thoroughly – Don’t leave damp towels sitting. Mildew can develop. Tumble dry or hang outside for fresh air drying.
- Iron while damp – Ironing while still slightly damp removes wrinkles and helps the fabric stay soft.
- Store properly – Fold or roll towels and stand them upright to allow air circulation. This prevents musty odors.
Tea Towel FAQs
What is flour sack fabric?
Flour sack fabric is a type of durable, lint-free cotton historically used for flour sacks. It’s lightweight and absorbent – ideal features for tea towels.
What’s the best tea towel material?
For drying and decoration, look for 100% cotton or linen tea towels. Cotton is very absorbent and softens over time. Linen is extremely durable and quick-drying.
Are tea towels and dish towels the same thing?
While people use the terms interchangeably, technically tea towels are made of linen or cotton while dish towels can be terry cloth or microfiber. Tea towels are also more decorative.
How do you make a tea towel?
To sew a basic tea towel, cut cotton or linen fabric to size and hem the edges. Add length to make ties for hanging. For embellishment, embroider designs or applique trims before hemming.
What are vintage tea towels made of?
Vintage tea towels were commonly made from very finely woven Irish linen or cotton. Flour sack cotton was also popular for its soft, absorbent properties.
Beyond the practical uses above, let your imagination run wild with ways to incorporate tea towels into your home.
They make heartfelt gifts, cheerful curtains, and even simple wall art if hung in a frame.
Their versatility and classic style ensure tea towels will remain a cherished kitchen staple for generations to come.