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The Leading Manufacturer & Distributor of Blank and Printed Flour Sack Towels in North America
The Leading Manufacturer & Distributor of Blank and Printed Flour Sack Towels in North America

Tea Towels vs. Dish Towels: What's the Difference?

In America, we collectively use 13 billion pounds of paper towels annually. Whether you want to save money or the environment, switching from paper to fabric kitchen towels is a smart move. 

But buying kitchen towels is easier said than done. There are so many different names for them. There are hand towels, flour sack towels, microfiber towels, and the list goes on.

How can you choose the best option for your kitchen needs? This guide will help you distinguish between two of the most common types of towels found in American kitchens: tea towels and dish towels.

Read on to learn the differences between the two, how to use them, and why you should only buy your tea towels from Mary's Kitchen.

What Is a Tea Towel?

A tea towel is a thin, food-safe kitchen towel that will not leave residue behind when it comes in contact with surfaces. Tea towels are also known as decorative towels when they feature a graphic print or other embellishments.

Tea towels get their name from their original use. 18th-century Europeans used them to line tea trays, insulate teapots, cover baskets of finger foods, or polish porcelain tea sets and silverware.

Today's tea towels are more commonly used to accessorize kitchens or even bathrooms. They may feature decorative designs, embroidery, and other details to go with your decor.

What Fabric Is Best for Tea Towels?

Thin, tightly woven cotton or linen fabrics are best for tea towels. Some tea towels may feature a mix of the two. Tea towels are usually very soft and somewhat absorbent, though not as absorbent as dish towels.

The main benefit of these fabrics is that they do not produce lint. Loose, loop-weave fabrics with nap are more likely to shed fibers. Washing these fabrics can make matters worse if the fibers interact negatively with your detergent.

Tea towels' slightly absorbent yet lint-free features make them perfect for polishing silverware or using around food, as you won't have to worry about leaving behind tiny fibers that should not be ingested.

What Can I Use Instead of a Tea Towel?

You can use a thin linen or cotton napkin instead of a tea towel for covering food or polishing silverware. Another option is a clean linen or cotton T-shirt, canvas, duck canvas, cotton or linen baby muslin, or broadcloth.

Fine weave cheesecloth may work well, depending on what you need the tea towel for. But this fabric is much thinner and more loosely weaved than a tea towel, meaning it does not have a high capacity for absorbing water.

If you are looking for something to use in place of a decorative tea towel, you can always go with an ornamental dish towel. Just remember not to use it around food, as these towels will leave residue behind.

What Is a Dish Towel?

A dish towel is a thick, highly absorbent kitchen towel that is excellent for cleaning up liquid spills. You might also hear people call it a drying or hand towel.

Compared to tea towels, dish towels are a relatively new invention. Their original use was in the early 1900s. North American homemakers would use animal feed sack scraps to wipe down kitchen surfaces.

The biggest difference between modern dish towels and the old-fashioned version is the material. 18th-century dish towels consisted of osnaburg fabric and burlap. Today's dish towels are often made from terry cloth.

What Material Is Best for Dish Towels?

Terry cloth and other high-pile fabrics are the best materials for dish towels. They may feel rough or coarse and have a loose, fluffy nap. The one thing all dish towels share in common is absorbency.

Avoid synthetic fibers, as they are proven to be less absorbent than natural fabrics. A cotton or linen blend terry cloth with a loop weave structure is the ideal choice.

Whatever material you decide on, don't plan to spend too much on your dish towels. Their main goal is to clean up kitchen messes, meaning you'll be throwing money away when your dish towels become permanently soiled.

Can You Use Hand Towels as Dish Towels?

Yes, you can use hand towels as dish towels, though you should obviously never wipe your hands on a dirty dish towel. Hand towels and dish towels are perfect for sopping up water, whether on your countertops or your hands.

But don't confuse the towels you use to wipe your hands with towels used to dry dishes, though. Wiping your hands on towels used to dry dishes can spread bacteria into the highly porous material and transfer it elsewhere.

Tea Towels vs. Dish Towels

The primary differences between tea and dish towels are the material, texture, absorbency, and weave. Here's how tea towels and dish towels compare in these categories:

  • ● Material: Tea towels are typically made of a thin cotton or linen fabric, while dish towels most often consist of cotton terry cloth
  • ● Texture: Tea towels are very soft and light to the touch, while dish towels are thick and can be quite coarse
  • ● Absorbency: Tea towels are slightly more absorbent than paper towels, while dish towels are as absorbent as bath towels
  • ● Weave: Tea towels feature a tight weave, while dish towels have a looping weave with a loose nap 

These differences are important because they define how each type of kitchen towel is used. Next, learn about the distinct uses of tea towels and dish towels.

Tea Towel Uses

Embellished tea towels are beautiful accessories that also serve practical functions in the kitchen. You can use them to polish dishes and silverware, serve food, or dry off ingredients without leaving lint residue behind.

Polish Dishes and Silverware

Drying dishes and silverware with dish towels is never a good idea. You'll leave behind tiny particles of fabric, and that's not even mentioning the streaks! Go for a thin tea towel instead for a perfect polish every time.

Line Bread Baskets

Tea towels are an excellent choice for lining baskets and trays for bread, scones, and other items you need to keep warm. Just make sure to use a clean towel to avoid transferring germs to your yummy food.

Cover Food

If you are looking for the perfect towel to cover your favorite bread loaf recipe while it rises, a tea towel is it. Tightly woven cotton offers insulation to keep heat in and drafts out while the yeast and gluten work their magic.

Dry Fruits and Veggies

Tea towels are food-safe as long as they consist of 100% natural materials and contain no added dyes, oils, or softeners. That means you can use them to dry off produce or even wrap your greens for refrigerator storage.

Dish Towel Uses

Compared to tea towels, terry cloth dish towels have fewer uses. However, they are a smart addition to any kitchen for hand drying and quick and efficient cleanup.

Kitchen Cleanup

Dish towels' highly absorbent nature makes them perfect for cleaning up kitchen spills and messes. You can also use them to wipe down cooking surfaces and countertops when you finish cooking for the day.


Drying soaking wet hands with a thin tea towel will result in a sopping mess. A dish towel is the better choice here since the fluffy terry cloth pile will almost instantly absorb the water on your hands.

Flour Sack Towels Are the Best Kitchen Towels

If you are searching for a kitchen towel that can do double duty as a tea and dish towel, look no further than the flour sack towel. This towel gets its name from the flour sacks 19th-century housewives used to create them.

They Are Highly Absorbent

Flour sack towels are thin, diagonally woven, and made of 100% cotton. Their unique fabrication makes them more absorbent than traditional tea towels, while their tight weave ensures they won't leave lint on your dishware or food.

They Are Beautiful to Look At

With delicately hemmed edges and hanging loops, they're also beautiful enough to display in your kitchen. You can even wipe your hands on them without worrying about watermarks since flour sack towels dry extremely fast.

They Are Incredibly Durable

Flour sack towels are a lot like cheesecloth: they are food-safe, soft to the touch, and versatile for many kitchen uses. Their tight, diagonal weave also makes flour sack towels more durable and able to stand up to kitchen messes.

Mary's Kitchen Flour Sack Towels

Tea and dish towels may be confused with one another, but they are not always interchangeable. Tea towels are typically made of tightly woven cotton or linen and used for polishing tableware, while terry cloth dish towels should only be used for cleaning up and drying your hands. The only type of kitchen towel that can serve both purposes is the tried-and-true flour sack towel.

Are you searching for high-quality, multi-purpose towels for your kitchen? Mary's Kitchen is the home of America's best flour sack towels. Browse our premium flour sack towels and take advantage of our sales today!

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