Dish clothes, kitchen towels, tea towels… whatever we call them, we all have them (or if we don’t, we certainly need to get some!). They come in handy for all kinds of highs and lows in the kitchen, whether that be drying the dishes, flipping mishaps on Pancake Day, shattered condiments bottles or wafting smoke away from the smoke alarm when something’s burning in the oven. Read on to find out more about tea towels, their history and where you can find them.
What is a tea towel?
Tea towels first appeared sometime in the 18th century. Much in the same way as we use them today, they were used in food preparation, most particularly for preparing afternoon snacks to go with high tea.
Linen tea towels are also synonymous with polishing silverware, another great pastime and necessity for high-grade dining in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. High calibre kitchen linens were a must, with white dish towels still used nowadays in many establishments to polish silverware and cutlery. Often, the duty would be bestowed on the lady of the house in the 18th and 19th centuries as this was an important task, and not one always entrusted to the servants. Pride was taken in this polishing process, so the great importance was given to the type of kitchen accessories one used.
Today, they come in all sorts of colours, materials, blends, and with a variety of patterns and designs.
Why is it called a tea towel?
Tea towels, as you can imagine, played a big role in afternoon tea back when such things were a daily occurrence for people of leisure. In the days before tea cosies, they would be used to wrap around teapots in order to keep the tea warm. They also had secondary uses, such as for covering trays or dishes full of treats, creating a big reveal when it was time to consume them. So it makes sense that its role would end up in the name!
What is the best material for tea towels?
Before asking what the best material is for a tea towel if should be asked what the main purpose of the towel will be. There are basics to cover, such as absorbency and durability. However, aesthetics and purpose can skew the importance of the material, which generally boils down to two camps: linen versus cotton.
Pretty and elegant, linen is your classic material for dinner parties and for occasions where you want to impress. Often found in white, these towels are used for serving in highbrow hotels and restaurants also. They produce very little in the way of lint but, their downfall is that they are not as absorbent as other materials. The luxurious texture and look of these towels will come at a higher price than other materials but will make the perfect companion for those who like to polish their glassware.
Hugely absorbent and helpful in busy kitchens, the cotton tea towel is a handy thing to have around. Ideal for drying dishes and hands, as well as helping clean up the chaos and unforeseen spillages in the midst of preparing meals, 100% is a good bet to maximise absorbency and to make sure they are oh so soft to the touch.
They can also be hugely fun. Whether you’re looking for a bold accent colour in a kitchen with a neutral palette (pink, orange or green tea towels, anyone?), funky tea towels, a subtle grey, Christmas-themed or humorous, you are bound to find exactly the type of cotton towel you are looking for if you dig deep enough. They even make great Christmas gifts!
If you want the best of both worlds, why not go for a cotton-linen blend? Eco-friendly towels are also an option nowadays, all you have to do is investigate what you want before you buy.
What size are tea towels?
As with most things in life, tea towels can be all sorts of sizes. Standard sizes come in around the 50 cm x 70 cm mark, with a few centimetres being added or taken away here and there depending on the brand, design and all sorts. Though, you can go as big and as small as you wish!
Where can I buy tea towels?
As usual, the internet is a great place to start! You can tie them in with your curtains, tablecloths, placemats or even oven gloves if you are looking for continuity in your space.
Check out Houzz’s range of kitchen products
and kitchen and table linens
All sorts of shops carry tea towels if you’re partial to browsing in person, with textiles, home décor, garden centres and DIY stores often having a range to choose from.