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Article: Why Tea Towels

Why Tea Towels

Why Tea Towels


Why tea towels?

OK, here’s my confession. Ready? Ummm… OK.

I really love dishwashers. If I had to abandon any of the machines taking up floor space in the kitchen then the dishwasher would be the last thing to go. I’d rather spend Saturday mornings at the Laundrette than argue about who gets to wash and who gets to dry after a TV dinner. And as for after the Dinner Party, well doesn’t the foreboding feeling when stacking the sink with piles of freshly scraped plates about who gets to deal with it on Sunday morning just depress the soul out of you? Or the well-meaning arguments from your guests? “No, really let us help”. No, let’s not – I mean how to kill after dinner conversation in one easy lesson. No, the dishwasher is the last thing to go – really.

But have you seen what it’s doing to your expensive dishes and crystal glassware? I retrieve the broken glass from one or two long-stemmed balloon crystal glasses from the filter every week. And those glasses that survive no longer shine. They’re scratched and clouded from the aggressive salt action in the machine. And, if I was paying more than £2.50 each for them (that’s about $0.03 at current bargain basement Brexit exchange rates) then, at least for my glasses, I’d be looking at alternatives.

Well what did you expect me to say? I’m trying to sell you expensive linen tea towels and glass cloths after all? (Please buy some) You know, no pressure, just full disclosure.

Like their dining room doppelgänger the cloth napkin, tea towels are a workhorse if I’ve ever seen one. And while their uses around the house are varied, so is their history — a lesson I learned when I set out to answer the question: WTF is a tea towel, anyway?

What I long suspected — that tea towels have something to do with tea; that despite their exotic material, they’re meant to be used as a drying tool in the kitchen; that their presence in souvenir shops probably belies some more noble roots  holds true, to a degree.

Our more direct and literal cousins across the Atlantic, of course, use the term “dish towel”. The difference between what this kind of dish towel and what a lot of people think of is that it’s a flat-woven fabric made from linen (earlier) and cotton (more recently). And one thing is clear: It is definitely not a terry towel (except maybe sometimes).

Early 20th-century household manuals sometimes call them “glass towels” or, more simply, “towels.” Earlier catalogues use terms such as “crash toweling,” to indicate the grade of linen used, and “damask toweling” to explain the patterning. Kitchen towels had a long history of being flat-woven rather than terry cloth, so the use of the term in a generic fashion is not surprising.

In an article from textile trade magazine Weaving Today, tea towels are said to have originated in 18th-century England, where “the lady of the household would use them to dry fine china and delicate tea sets, jobs that were considered too important to trust to potentially clumsy servants.” (I guess you could replace this with the more generic term “dishwasher”). They were also often used as a way for said “ladies” to show off their embroidery skills.

By the 19th century and early-mid 20th century, a glass towel or dish towel would likely have been a striped or checked cloth so that it was decorative as well as useful.

So: Tea Towels, (for the English speakers amongst us), Dish Cloths, (for our North American friends across the pond), Torchons, Geschirrtücher and Strofinacci, (for some of our European friends), all amount to pretty much the same thing. They are pieces of cloth that we have in our kitchens and I am quite convinced that we all use them on a daily basis; maybe not for actually drying dishes but they are practical items.

“Better Quality” tea towels then? For sure I still possess one from my son’s school with the title “Class of 1999” containing about a hundred self-portraits of his classmates. It’s lovely. It has blue line drawings on an off-white background. It’s a great souvenir, a memento. What it’s not is a good utility drying up or glass cloth.  As a tea towel it’s pretty useless. It weighs in at around 53g while any decent cotton tea towel with a good absorbency ratio will weigh in at around 75g or 85g – check the rate prior to purchasing anything. Any reputable retailer will indicate the weight of the tea towel and as the majority of tea towels are all much the same size ( 48 x 74 cms – 19’’ x 29’’) you can immediately see which ones will be pretty absorbent. I mean it does have its uses. Like mopping up the kitchen floor following the flood when my partner accidently switched off the freezer (again).

Flax linen is one of the world’s oldest natural fibers, made from the stalk of the flax plant. It comes to life with use, with being washed and hung to dry in the fresh air and sun. It also sheds dirt very well and easily. And it is the strongest of the vegetable fibers; up to two to three times stronger than cotton. It is even stronger when wet, yet it softens on repeated washings. A lint-free fabric, it is also perfect for drying glass.

Linen makes an excellent dish drying towel because it absorbs 20 percent or more of its weight in water. Now that is a good tea towel. You can use the same towel for many pots and pans. It is also naturally resistant to bacteria. Cotton dishcloths are good (please buy some) but they aren’t nearly this good.

All being said though why not start off small and less expensive and try some of the cotton tea towels. There is a wide selection of good quality printed cloths all with great absorbency, okay so not as amazing as the linen version. But they will add some colour and fun into your kitchen. Start sorting through your tea towels, imagine it’s your sock drawer and throw out those thread bare, holey articles of fabric that might possibly constitute being a tea towel. Be brave ditch them, they are doing you and your kitchen no good, honestly! Start on a journey of learning to love and appreciate your tea towels and who knows you might start to regard them as practical fashion accessories!

There’s a thought: next blog entry, “the care and feeding of tea towels”.


1 comment

Superb wee piece. Full of detail and character. During this Covid Crisis, fingers crossed you are taking orders as I have an urgent desire to buy linen tea towels.

Mo Docherty

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