Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tea Towels

A tea towel (British English) or dish towel (American English) is a cloth which is used to dry dishes, cutlery, etc., after they have been washed. In 18th century England, a tea towel was a special linen drying cloth used by the mistress of the house to dry her precious and expensive china tea things. Servants were considered too ham-fisted to be trusted with such a delicate job, although housemaids were charged with hand-hemming the woven linen when their main duties were completed. Tea towels began being mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution.

Source: Wikipedia

This history of tea towels has always been interesting to me. I wish that as a child I'd been told that it was considered too careful a task for the maid. It might have made sis and me a little more appreciative of dish drying! Much time was spent washing and drying dishes. I don't recall that we were very fast at the task. Living in a house with no dishwasher meant that dish duty was always ours. We always used "tea towels", not "dish towels". This must have been because of our mother's Canadian and English roots. The tea towels were always hand embroidered by mom, frequently with the days of the week. I always worked hard at making sure I had the proper tea towel for the day. Sis would wash and I would dry, or vice versa. Dish washing time became an ongoing story-time adventure. We would weave tall tales aloud, each taking a turn at our story. Sometimes these stories would last for days (from one dish washing to the next). Oh, the things children miss out on in this day of dishwashers and modern appliances!

Do you have dish washing memories? Do you use tea towels or dish towels? What is the difference for you?

Photo: Elm Street Antiques


  1. Yes, many, many hours spent doing the dishes, which was a task for both my sister and myself. We used dish towels then. Today, I use tea towels, although some jobs require a dish towel and I have a few for those tasks.

  2. Is this a coincidence? Did you see my post yesterday? heehee! I love the old tea towels and enjoyed reading the history! Thanks!

  3. Interesting definitions! Our five years spent in South Africa must be why we've always called them tea towels - even though we used them for drying dishes! ;) I really enjoyed your post and I LOVE your tea towel- so pretty and pink!

    Have a lovely week!

  4. Oh, I spent many hours with hand-embroidered dishtowels when I was young. My mother always washed and I dried the dishes. She used that time together as a teaching time in fun ways. We did Bible 'Trivia' quizzes and we tried to outdo each other and find Bible facts and characters that would stump the other one. As a result I learned a lot of little known characters and facts. But I still hated doing dishes and I promised myself that when I had my own home we would eat from paper plates and my children would NEVER do dishes. Did they do dishes? You bet they did!

  5. Great minds? This is so funny! I see where my Sunday is now! We should get together for tea!

  6. We used dish towels and many, many hours washing dishes for my sister and I. I washed, she dried. I really don't remember complaining about it though, interesting, guess it's just the way it was!

  7. I think I use tea towels. I like to call them tea towels anyway. I have lots of embroidered ones that I've used since we were married (wedding gifts from the babushki in my life then) and am wondering now if I should display them instead :0)

  8. We always called them tea towels, I guess beacause of our Brit heritage 5 genearations ago on my mother's side.(2 on my dad's side) A dish cloth was a knitted cotton square used in the hot water and suds to wash with and the teatowel to dry with.

  9. Great post. The beauty of a tea towel is the delicacy. It is to respect beauty. I have very few tea towel. I would love to have some of the days of the week. That would be fun. I think I would reserve those for my evening tea.

    I have very many many dish towels and many many dish cloths. I use several every day. Now I have created a cloth paper towel replacement for use with food preparations. Remember the cheese in the bandanna of the hill country too.
    Cloth is a very primary aspect of life. I am leaning into the ways of those in times past.
    This generation is too disposable and deprived of delicate beauty.

  10. I loved your drying story with your sister. What fond memories.

  11. A lovely post! We grew up calling them tea towels instead of dish towels. We didn't have a dishwasher, so my sister and I were the dishwashers. I always had to rinse and dry because it took longer! (My sister was older than me, so I didn't get a choice!) Then later, I would help my Mom. Thank you for sharing your memories about you and your sister.

  12. I enjoyed the tea towel history and your story! I wish I had a pleasant story about dish washing and drying, but I don't! Never enjoyed this task! ;-) I'm very thankful for electric dishwashers!


  13. As I child dishes were always washed and dried..I remember in some dark melamac ones my mom had...seeing the dishes dry in their is still in my mind..
    And I have you to thank for bringing back into my life the joy of stitching....loved this post..but must admit..I love having a dishwasher once again..

  14. Anonymous9:38 PM

    We used dish towels (until this post, I always thought tea towels meant they were smaller, or something :) ).

    My sister and I would do dishes together. One of us had the option of not actually doing the washing and/or drying -- provided she read aloud to the other from whatever book the dish-doer was reading at the time. This resulted in reading lots of random middle parts of each other's books.


Thank you for commenting on my blog post. I am always happy to hear from blog readers. Your words encourage and inspire me. I am glad you stopped by to share conversation, recipes, ideas, and thoughts on creating a welcoming home.