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What Are Tea Towels?

photo of 5 multicolored kitchen and tea towels against a white backdrop

What are tea towels?

The tea towel is an inherently practical tool to have around the kitchen, whether it’s in your home or the commercial world. Learning the many different ways to implement this cloth will help you streamline your cooking process and add flair to your presentation, as well as serving to organize and clean your space.

Having worked in the restaurant industry for many years, you become accustomed to seeing different kinds of eatery linens and their specific uses – from the disposable serviettes of your more casual establishments to ‘linens’, kitchen rags, and polishing rags, the various kinds of kitchen cloth that exist have their specific purpose and context. The tea towel is one of the most prevalent of these workhorse kitchen cloths. Lint-free and light, the tea towel is extremely versatile as a utilitarian tool and an aesthetic staple of modern kitchens. In many ways, the tea-towel is an amalgamation of the serviette, the linen, the kitchen rag, the polishing rag, and the serving cloth. Its many different uses make it well-suited to handle nearly anything you can throw at it while you cook, protect, or present a dish.

Tea towel or dish towel?

blue and white checkered tea towel on a wood serving board

In my research, the tea towel is practically interchangeable with everyday dish towels except in those moments where the towel is not made up of linen or cotton. A terry cloth towel for example, while absorbent and multifunctional, is not traditionally considered a tea towel. It would fall under the umbrella of dish towels or hand towels given its design for absorbing moisture and drying dishware. So what makes a tea towel a tea towel?

Like we mentioned earlier, the only real criterion for a tea towel is its composition: your tea towel must be made of linen or cotton to be considered. Compared to the hand and dish towels, the tea towel is relatively thin and delicate. It does not catch a lot of lint, making it an excellent polishing cloth for glassware, silverware, and porcelain – like tea sets. Using it as a polishing or post-drying cloth in the kitchen is an extremely effective way to ensure your air-dried dishes remain free of moisture before going in the cupboard, preventing stains on your glassware.

Tea Culture in Victorian England

vintage photo of a woman drinking tea

The tea towel and similarly made linen-cotton cloths have been around for a while but the context that we know it in is derived largely from the tea culture of 18th and 19th century England, especially during the Victorian era. This is due to its original purpose as an insulator for teapots at tea ceremonies. People wanted a cloth that could be practical, keeping the tea warm and preventing people from burning themselves, but equally decorative and dainty. Tea towels are thus also known for their aesthetic features: they are often embroidered with unique designs or detailed stitching to elevate the visual quality of the cloth and thus of the items it’s being served with. As we’ll explore later, this visual quality of tea towels has become staple to its modern use as a complement to the lovely muffins that have been brought out with brunch, or as a visual addition to the table settings at your next successful dinner party.

While the insulating qualities of the tea towel were important, they served a specific status symbol among the highly-stratified social culture of Victorian England. Given the empire’s heavy involvement colonizing Asia during Queen Victoria’s reign, England suddenly had greater access to many kinds of tea, something that was becoming a central part of their domestic and colonial economy – as well as their high culture. Tea parties, also known as ‘high tea’, were increasingly common among the upper classes of Victorian England, opportunities to show off rare teas and fine foods. These were social gatherings traditionally happening in the early afternoon, between lunch and supper. Different kinds of tea were served along with sweet baked goods or small snacks, like finger sandwiches. These were meant to be elegant and sophisticated events.

While still slightly more casual than dinner parties, high tea still carried its own set of specific social rules – the host was under intense scrutiny by their guests for their presentation and offerings. High tea was a moment for hosts to display to their guests their wealth, their savvy, and their knowledge of upper-class social mechanisms around hosting. The tea party was about status, showing your guests an unforgettable tea service and delicious food that may elevate your place among the English elites. Fine china was key in these moments – the nicer the better – and we would see the first place where the importance of a tea towel initially emerged: the teacups had to be cleaned and polished to perfection by a lint-free cloth, one like linen or thin cotton. Furthermore, the decorative elements of the towel could be used in the presentation of the tea and the food and elevate the opulence of the entire affair.

Tea parties became increasingly popular as they did not require as much planning as a full-on party but were still able to satisfy the social elements of showing off all your nice things. The culture around ‘high tea’ was a reflection of intense rules around social etiquette that permeated all parts of Victorian English. As commodity culture continued to grow in the increasingly wealthy England, so did the prevalence of tea towels.

photo of outdoor tea party with flowers and teacups

The aesthetic of the tea towel

The tea towel has been in use in the high-class tea parties of the West since at least the 18th century[1], but there is evidence of its use in many different contexts farther back. One source describes that early silk and linen cloths were used in wartime as cloth maps that could be easily hidden and sewn into clothing.[2] Equally, the tea towel has always maintained a certain artistry to it, elevated by such stories as Van Gogh’s famous and very rare tea towels he painted on when lacking materials during his time at the mental asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, in Provence.[3]

The tea towel was a canvas for smaller-scale artists as well: it was not uncommon to see individualized embroidery on tea towels that were given as gifts or made custom to keep on your person or in your kitchen, like a larger cooking kerchief. By the 19th century, the tea towel was increasingly becoming a part of modern-day life as the West’s growing middle class was able to purchase more goods – among those highly-sought after items were those that could fulfill dual purposes as decorative luxury products and practical kitchen tools. Slung over the shoulder while chopping ingredients, protecting a freshly-baked loaf, or as an aesthetic staple of your tea party setup, the tea towel has maintained its place within our kitchens for its versatility and look.

The many uses of the tea towel

two people polishing cutlery with tea towels

The tea towel has many different uses in the modern kitchen. Let’s explore the multitude of practical and decorative functions of this linen.

Commercial

In the commercial kitchen, a solid linen towel is absolutely key. For the back of house and in the front of house, a light, semi-absorbent cloth is used in every context: whether doing a final dry on a chef’s knife or polishing glassware out of the machine, the linen cloth is at home there as it is in front of the clients decorating their plates. Restaurants have large stocks of linen and cotton towels to ensure they never run out: in a commercial kitchen these towels are worth their weight in gold and are essential to maintaining a clean, efficient, and good-looking kitchen. Equally, one will see tea towels used to decorate dishes and complement the aesthetic of the restaurant. It is a great way to create unity in the general look of the space. This holds true within the home.

Lining tea trays

It makes a lot of sense to address the tea towel’s original intention (in the way we know it): high tea! In order to complement the lovely tea ware you have assembled for your guests; a set of thin tea towels is an excellent way to elevate the aesthetic of your settings while keeping the space dainty and clean.

On top of just being used for your guests and as a part of their personal plate and cups, you can use it to line the infamous tiered trays that hold the delicious finger food for the evening.

The tea tray is traditionally separated in 3 and each tier is meant to be eaten in order. On the bottom, the largest tray holds the first course. This is made up of the savory food like tiny egg salad sandwiches and stuffed baked things. The middle tray holds my personal favorite part of afternoon tea: the scones, jam, and clotted cream. An ex was a huge fan of going to tea houses and we’d always start with the scones – they’re so good warm. The elites of Victorian England would be sure to scoff at my tea manners. Lastly, the top (and sadly, smallest) tray would house the sweets. Small tarts and cakes are placed up here. For this lovely and varied setup (the variation is a part of the opulence!) it makes complete sense to try and line this tray with some decorative tea towels that will catch crumbs and make the delicious food you prepared look even better.

Decorating Bathrooms

While you may not want to throw away your absorbent hand towel, a decorative tea towel can really tie a guest bathroom together. A friend of mine has an excellent Western motif in his house – his guest bathroom has these great towels decorated with horses that sit on top of the hand towels. They add texture to the drying station and unify the look of the bathroom with the rest of the house. A decorative tea towel will do wonders for this as long as the look matches.

Lining Kitchen Shelves

A linen cloth is perfect for lining kitchen shelves. While it gives the cabinets a cleaner and more unified look, tea towels also serve to keep your glassware and dishware cleaner for longer. It can still absorb excess water the rack missed but is light and breathable. Equally it makes cleaning your cabinets extremely easy – just pull your dishes out, wipe down the cabinet, replace the tea towel, and put your dishes back in. This gives your cabinets a cohesive look throughout your kitchen, especially if you use the same designs.

Serving Accessory

The tea towel is an absolutely crucial serving accessory. Learn how to use it and really make the look of your dishes stand out.

One of the first ways I think of using a tea towel as a serving accessory as a way to divide a bowl from a serving plate. This has a number of key functions. Aesthetically, the tea towel can add some color or texture to the settings. Practically, the tea towel stops the bowl from shifting and sliding around the serving plate, preventing and minimizing spills when you’re having soup or stew.

Another really good way to use a tea towel as a serving accessory is by wrapping baked goods for presentation and warmth. The quintessential image of a basket of freshly-baked muffins sitting on and wrapped in a tea towel emerges. Wrapping some freshly-baked goods in a tea towel will offer another facet to the presentation but is equally useful when many people are grabbing the same loaf and cutting pieces over dinner.

Tea towels can also be used in conjunction with the cutlery and settings. When hosting a dinner party, wrapping individual cutlery for each guest in a decorative tea towel, using them as serviettes, or placing them on every guest’s respective settings as the main decorative element of the settings before the first course is an excellent way to show your guests your attention to detail and style.

Drying mat

Given the lightness of the fabric but some of its absorbent properties, tea towels make excellent liners for drying racks or as the base for a drying surface. Place one under your drying rack to catch the drips, avoiding it from seeping directly in your counters and potentially causing some water damage. After a big dinner party, lay a few down on your counter and use it as the base for additional drying space when you have many dishes needing to dry.

Many recommend using tea towels to dry vegetables after washing them: the fabric is airy enough to let the veggies dry quickly but still absorbent enough to catch all the water. Your lettuce leaves will remain crisp for that salad you’re making.

Lastly, if you have the space, tea towels are very useful for drying different ingredients. Leaving fresh herbs out on them and swapping the tea towels ever so often will allow the herbs to air dry without needing to hang them.

Serving accessory for hot dishes

The tea towel shows its versatility again as the aesthetic and practical complement to a hot dish being served at the table. Imagine a casserole or shepherd’s pie cooked in a cast iron pan: it looks great straight out of the oven and after finishing with a few dried herbs for color, you want to serve it directly on the table. The pot is very hot and without a wooden pot coaster, you could burn your table and your guests. Instead, place a few tea towels on the table and rest the dish there. Place another tea towel or two on the handles so your guests have something to grab while they serve themselves for seconds.

As a polishing towel for glassware

While most commercial kitchens have dedicated polishing towels made out of microfibre, that’s not always necessary in a home kitchen. One of the main reasons for having microfibre polishing rags in a kitchen is for how quickly they dry and how often they can be used. In a service where you’re polishing hundreds of glasses as they come out of the dish-pit, it makes sense to have a polishing rag. They work really well to quickly polish glassware – I have some at home.

For doing a single round of wine glasses or some glassware you just cleaned, however, the tea towel handles the task without any issue. Once it becomes wet it loses a lot of the polishing quality, but for the final touches on your porcelain and glassware, the tea towel doesn’t leave any lint behind and leaves your cocktail glasses looking mint.

All-purpose cooking cloth

For me, this is the most utilitarian aspect of the tea towel. It has so many useful applications in the kitchen and during the cooking process. Maybe you wouldn’t use the beautiful, embroidered tea towel, but a solidly-made linen or cotton towel is a perfect multipurpose kitchen cloth.

The tea towel is perfect for the multi-use cloth you tuck into your apron and sling over your shoulder. This is the cloth you use to dry your clean hands or wipe down a clean utensil as you work. Everyone cook working efficiently needs one on their person as it’ll allow you to minimize extra moves as you work through your prep and cooking process. You can also use certain parts of it to quickly clean small messes and keep your cooking space organized and clean while you work. Walk into any well-run professional kitchen – their workstations are immaculate even when in the middle of a crazy rush. If you’re the type of person who tears a kitchen apart when you cook a huge meal and are daunted by the huge amount of cleaning that always comes, start by cooking with a tea towel on your person and notice how you instinctively clean as you go.

The tea towel can also be used for some important baking processes. For one, using it to cover dough that is rising or settling is important as the tea towel is often dense enough to protect the dough but still allows a bit of air to travel in and fuel the active yeast. Any recipe that calls for covering a mixture and letting it sit calls for a solid linen tea towel.

Using a thicker tea towel is excellent as an oven mitt in a pinch. I often forego the oven mitts altogether when I’m in a rush, especially if the thing I’m pulling out of the oven has a good handle and can be taken out quickly. I would definitely make sure your oven mitt is thick enough when folded to avoid feeling the heat when you’re mid-way between taking the dish out and putting it down – great way to drop an afternoon’s worth of cooking all over the floor. Stacking multiple tea towels will also be great for bringing hot dishes to the table and not stressing about burning yourself or your guests.

Lastly, while I’ve never seen it myself, some of my research indicated that certain tea towels with specific thicknesses can be used as cheesecloth. This makes a lot of sense as you could easily hold a solid inside and squeeze the fabric without worrying about any of the solid making its way through. If you’re making your own dairy alternatives at home (almond milk?) having a couple of these cloths can be really useful to get the ‘milk’ out. Furthermore, you can squeeze moisture out of defrosting veggies like frozen spinach.

Wrapping paper with an additional use

I really like the idea of having a nice tea towel as the wrapping for a gift, especially a cooking-oriented one. For one, the environmental aspect of this is obvious – there is no paper waste with this gift but instead a very useful kitchen tool. Secondly it really elevates the look of the gift, making it look a lot fancier. Imagine giving your significant other a really nice knife: wrapping the box in a custom tea towel that they can use to store the knife dry really ties the entire gift together. If you’re looking for a way to quickly and easily make the wrapping of the gift a little fancier, look no further than the tea towel.

tea towel and dishware photographed on a wood surface

 

Thank you for joining me in a little tea towel adventure: from Victorian England to the modern kitchen, it is obvious that this linen and cotton cloth is a staple for all chefs and excellent hosts. Their practicality, aesthetic, and adaptability make it a wonderful companion to your kitchen tools.

Additional References

  1. Tea Towel History
  2. Historical Uses of Tea Towels
  3. Van Gogh’s Tea Towels