What Is A Tea Towel Used For? It’s Not Just Decoration

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Updated on December 27, 2023 by
whats a tea towel

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The name “tea towel” might seem like a fancy word for “dish towel”, but in reality, they have their differences. These differentiating qualities become a lot more apparent when you look at them more closely, but what is a tea towel? Truth be told, it’s not just a cute kitchen accessory or decoration. Once upon a time, it was more of a fancy addition to your kitchen or dining room linens, but these days, it can be found in any kitchen and even at backyard barbecues in a variety of ways.

To really understand what a tea towel is, what it is used for, and where to find one of your own, there are a few aspects of this sometimes adorable kitchen linen to consider. Maybe you already have tea towels and you don’t know it, but can’t figure out why it won’t soak up water when drying your dishes. Or you have an unused stack of printed tea towels sitting in a drawer because you still can’t figure out their purpose. Hopefully this will answer any questions you have about what a tea towel is.

The Difference Between A Tea Towel And Dish Towel

Micheile Henderson/Unsplash

Admittedly, at first glance, a tea towel might look just like a dish towel to some. And if you’ve never had a use for a tea towel, then it only makes sense for the two towels to seem interchangeable to you. Simply put, a tea towel is designed to act as more of a decorative item in most cases than as an actual towel for your kitchen’s washing or drying needs.

Tea towels are also thinner than dish clothes and tend to be flatter and more densely woven.

When it comes to the history of the tea towel, they were first used by the rich in 18th century England. Ladies used the fancy towels to accessorize their tables. They also used tea towels to line tea trays to absorb spills.

Van Gogh, a famous Dutch painter from that period, created still-life paintings using tea towels. One of those famous tea towels once sold for £2.1 million.

While a dish towel is typically used to dry dishes and absorb any water left on the counter from a dish washing session, tea towels have different uses that go beyond the cleanliness of it all. Tea towels can be used to line a dish, tray, or basket, which you will then place non-messy foods in. Or, a tea towel can be used to dry fruit and vegetables after they have been washed. Thy can also be used as cloth napkins or to cover hot dishes on the counter for a little while. Clearly, there are a lot of uses, but tea towels aren’t the same thing as dish towels.

What A Tea Towel Is Made Of

Dayne Topkin/Unsplash

Tea towels are typically made from a soft but durable linen. Unlike dish towels, which are made with terry cloth meant to best absorb liquids in the kitchen, tea towels are less absorbent because of the material they are made from. They are also often embroidered or printed with stylish designed or words to add to their allure. Tea towels are meant to be more than just a flat color. They are designed to be shown off rather than dry dishes and clean up liquid messes in the kitchen.

Because tea towels are made from a different fabric than most dish towels, they also require special cleaning methods. You should wash colored tea towels separately from other fabrics, and they should be hung to dry. But because of the lightweight fabric, tea towels tend to dry quickly on the line.

How are Tea Towels Used Today?

Today, tea towels are still very popular and can be used in the following ways:

  • Line a tea tray: these beautiful towels are still used to line tea trays.
  • Serve food: tea towels are also used as a serving accessory when serving soup, bread, and other foods. The towels help keep food in place and add a designer touch to the table.
  • Cover hot rolls: tea towels are often placed in a bread basket to keep hot bread or rolls warm and fresh. They can also be used when gifting food items like baked goods.
  • Use as a hot pad: when a tea towel is folded, it can also be used as a hot pad. You can place the folded towel on the table, where it can protect the table’s surface.
  • Place wet dishes on it: rather than using a dish rack, it’s possible to use a tea towel! Just lay the tea towel on the counter and place wet dishes and utensils on it to dry.
  • Give as a gift: you can also give a set of tea towels as a gift for housewarmings, weddings, for holidays, and other special occasions.

Why Some Prefer Tea Towels Over Dish Towels

Cathal Mac an Bheatha/Unsplash

In a day and age when people tend to love kitschy home accessories with fun prints and sayings printed on them, tea towels have made a comeback in recent years. While tea towels don’t absorb liquids as well as standard dish towels do, some people might still prefer the stylish nature of tea towels and the fact that they can still do plenty, even if they are more like the step-sibling of the dish towel than a blood-related relative.

Some people might also love the fact that tea towels make it possible to bring back the days of cloth napkins. It’s hard to believe that anyone would use cloth napkins for every meal, and that’s likely not the case. But for special occasions or times when you want to be a little more formal, it can be convenient to break out the tea towels as cloth napkins. They can also be used for dusting furniture or polishing silverware and while those aren’t the most interesting uses for tea towels, they offer more ways to get your money’s worth out of these kitchen towels.

How To Use A Tea Towel

Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

Really, there are more ways you can use a tea towel than you can’t. No, you can’t use a tea towel when you want to wipe down the kitchen counters or dry dishes from the sink. But other than that, you can still use a tea towel to line your serving tray for meals or parties or even as shelf liners in your kitchen. And in the event that the towels get a little worn or dirty as cabinet liners, you can always remove them to give them a quick wash and freshening up before you return them to the cabinets.

You can even use tea towels as temporary place mats. The point is, despite looking like one of those kitchen items you might want but will never use, tea towels offers plenty of benefits, even if you were having a hard time trying to figure out what tea towels are even used for.

Tea towels aren’t a total necessity in all kitchens. In fact, you could probably go years without ever needing one at all. But once you know tea towels exist and have seen how adorable all of the printed designs can be, you might find it hard to steer clear. Lucky for you, there are plenty of ways to use tea towels and get enough mileage out of them to make them worth every penny.

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