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What IS a tea towel?

Posted by Sydney C de Baca on

Tea towels, a.k.a. dish towels, are a necessity, and while I now make them, I didn't grow up using the term "tea towel." 

As someone who grew up using terms like “dish cloth” or “kitchen towel” for everything we used in the kitchen, I was flummoxed when I first heard the term “tea towel.” I was in graduate school and had spilled my tea——really, truly——at a friend’s apartment. She said, “Oh, let me get you a tea towel.”

What she was going to come back with? Was it meant for only tea-related things? If so, how would that be apparent? Would it be apparent?.... As I was ruminating and watching my tea spread out on the table, my friend emerged with a…dish towel. Dish cloth. Kitchen towel.

Thus I began to understand. In the broadest sense, a tea towel is a dish or kitchen towel. It’s used for all the same reasons. It does, however, have a lovely history and set of associations with its name.

Unsurprisingly, the expression originated in England, most likely in the 18th century. At that time, they were made of linen since linen didn’t scratch the delicate bone china cups and teapots that they were used to dry. Both the Radical Tea Towel Company and Weaving Today say that the embroidery on them often matched the table linens for tea (like napkins and table cloths) and thus began their history of becoming heirlooms and keepsakes.

And this keepsake territory covered by the term “tea towel” has continued to expand. With the advent of the industrial revolution and mass production, tea towels could now be manufactured for the everyone, not just the upper echelons of society. (I’m sure Dickens would modify this praise, nevertheless, now more people had access to more affordable necessitities.) Continuing in and yet transforming the tradition of embroidered tea towels, printed images on them has become the norm, anything from the image of a a British pound to revolutionary images & sayings to, say, vegetable portraits.

One of my favorite tea towels was a wedding gift from one of my best friends.

She and her family live in Australia, and the tea towel has a stunning Aboriginal design by Ruth Stewart that transports me whenever I look at it. Because it feels more like a work of fabric art, we actually hang it in our living room instead of using it as a tea/dish towel.  The Alperstein Design website has a magnificent collection of these towels, and the royalties go towards the artists and their communities.

I use the term “tea towel” for my towels precisely because of this keepsake and heirloom tradition. Yes, they’re also dish or kitchen towels, but with my watercolor paintings they are also keepsakes, making wonderful gifts of practical kitchen art. By the by, when he was short of money, and therefore canvas, Van Gogh actually painted directly on tea towels, one of which sold at auction for £2.1 million, about $3.2 million dollars these days (summer of 2015). Never underestimate the worth of art on a tea towel!

Stay tuned for the next post in this five part series when I will tackle the question of why flour sack towels in particular have such amazing superpowers.


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