Tea Lover Lessons

What Is a Tea Towel?

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Tea towels are the ultimate unsung kitchen hero...but what really are they? While these unassuming yet versatile kitchen staples might be taken for granted at times, we uncover the mystery of exactly how these towels ended up in your kitchen drawer (plus a few surprising uses for them!)

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What Exactly Is a Tea Towel?

One thing is for sure, tea towels are always made with linen or cotton (or a combination of the two) and never made with terry cloth. Generally, dish towels are essentially interchangeable with tea towels when they’re both made of the same materials (linen or cotton) — until you come across a terry dish towel. Tea towels will usually be 28 x 28 inches, around the size of a hand towel, and are often colorfully designed or printed.

It was decided long ago (the 18th century to be exact) that tea towels should only be made from linen or cotton because these are the most durable materials that will never streak or leave lint behind when drying dishes and glasses.

You’ll most likely find tea towels being used in the kitchen but they also make unique decor when embroidered or printed with unique designs. Vincent Van Gogh even found a surprising use for tea towels — he painted his masterpieces on them whenever he ran out of canvas!

Where Did the Tea Towel Originate?

The invention of tea towels parallels the rise in popularity of afternoon tea in England in the 18th century. When having tea started to become a social event, the need for tea towels naturally arose. Finely decorated tea towels were used to accentuate the presentation of an afternoon tea while insulating the teapot to ensure the lady would not burn herself or drip tea when delicately pouring cups of tea. Also, it was discovered that the durable and lint-free material of tea towels was perfect to clean and dry the fine china afterward. The trend quickly caught on in America and the linen sacks that held flour, sugar, and other dry goods were quickly repurposed and embroidered into functional and beautiful tea towels.

How Can I Use a Tea Towel Now?

  • Just baked a batch of cookies or a loaf of bread? Keep your freshly baked goods warm by wrapping them in a clean tea towel.

  • Cover your teapot with a tea towel to help keep your tea warm.

  • Pat dry and wrap your washed greens in a tea towel for a sustainable solution.

  • Give personalized tea towels as a gift to your friends and family.

  • Use a folded tea towel to grab that hot bowl or mug from the microwave so you don’t burn your hands.

  • Similarly, place a folded tea towel underneath hot pans or kettles to protect your counter or tables.

  • Place a tea towel in the bottom of a bread basket and fold it over the top to keep your bread warm and toasty throughout dinner.

  • Learn how to embroider on tea towels.

  • Certain tea towels can even be used as a strainer. (Ever wanted to make homemade cheese? There’s a tea towel for that!)

Here’s the Tea about the Towel

While tea towels don’t have a reputation for being the most absorbent kitchen towel, they are still the ultimate multi-purpose tool. They’re universally handy whether you use them to dry your favorite teacups to pretend you’re a fancy 18th-century Englishwoman or if you simply use them to clean up spills and dry your hands. With hundreds of creative and functional uses for tea towels and when you can find almost any pattern, quote, or pop culture icon of your choice on a tea towel, everyone (especially tea lovers) should stock up on at least a few for their kitchen!

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