Whether cooking in a domestic kitchen or in a commercial operation with more activity, the kitchen towel is fundamentally utilitarian. As such, both the homemaker and the professional chef find the need for a thirsty, lint-free workhorse of a towel a premium in a fast-paced kitchen.
Whether it doubles as a handy potholder; gets inserted into a basket as a bread warmer; is efficiently tied around the waist as an apron or parked on the shoulder so as never to be apart from its master; or is easily at hand to wipe up spills or wipe down utensils, dishes or work areas, there is only one towel that serves all of these plus many other purposes: The Tea Towel.
What Distinguishes the Tea Towel?
These days, there are many towels on the market. The common heading for this collective is the kitchen towel, but there is a difference one needs to be aware of. The tea towel is typically a linen, or weave, or cotton, in the modern era.
It is a durable towel of quality construction made to last and able to quickly absorb liquids. What it is not is terry cloth, often referred to as a kitchen towel, but more appropriately, the hand towel. You won’t see the hand towel wasting time in a busy kitchen. When you pull down those fine glasses and china ready to serve, you want the towel that will wipe them clean without leaving any lint or marks. You want the tea towel.
The History of the Tea Towel
The towel has been as much a sidekick throughout history as the knife. Tracing its presence and use through time reveals an illustrious past. In ancient China as well as during World War II, silks were the handy towels used as cloth maps that could be surreptitiously hidden in a shoe or sewn into a garment to avoid detection in the event there was a search of prisoners.
If you have looked upon your tea towels as a kind of blank canvas, then you are in fine company. Vincent Van Gogh often used the tea towel as a substitute upon which to create his masterpieces when he had run out of canvas materials. In fact, one of Van Gogh’s works of art fetched a hefty sum at auction as recently as 2000. It was a still life with flowers – painted on a tea towel.
How the Tea Towel Got its Name
The tea towel, by any other name, is still a tea towel, and it derives its name from Victorian Era England where the tradition of serving tea in the social setting took off. Teatime went from the simple service of tea and perhaps biscuits to eventually becoming the late afternoon/early evening High Tea, or supper time.
Queen Victoria’s reign beginning in the early 1800s was known for its hierarchical social order. Many changes were occurring at that time, not the least of which was the order of the manor house in England. Teatime is a tradition of utilizing the best tea service. The finest china not only required a towel of distinctive qualities to make the service presentable but also was most likely personally cared for by the lady of the house to avoid the possibility of any mishaps in handling such finery.
The Best Material for Tea Towels
The preferred towel of choice was a soft linen that was highly absorbent and lint-free. The ladies of the manors could trust these towels to thoroughly dry their delicate serving set without marring them thus preserving the moment of presentation at tea service.
It was a time of pomp and circumstance, and it deserved just the right touch. With such ritual ingrained in this hierarchical structure, it is no wonder that a dedicated towel was given to the entire ceremony from start to finish. The tea towel was present before, during and after the service.
Expanding beyond mere utility, the staff would exploit their stitchery talents and either hem the edges of the towels or adorn them with their crafty embroidery. This further distinguished the tea towel with classic characteristics that nicely enhanced the presentation.
Responsible for so many advances, this was an era that also saw the ascendancy of the novel, scientific progress, organized feminism, the arts and crafts movement and the permanent establishment of the tea towel.
No Less Industrious - Enter the Americans
Meanwhile, across the pond in America, producers and grocers were packaging their flour, sugar and various other foodstuffs in sackcloth rather than bulky wooden barrels. A clever marketing move, these tightly woven sacks provided a convenient means of advertising upon which could be printed slogans and company mottoes. Some were even embellished with embroidery.
Necessity being the mother of invention, thrifty homemakers wasted no time recycling these sacks and using them as dish towels. This started a cottage industry in the way women would expand their collections by trading with each other for the different artistic patterns.
This, in turn, influenced marketers to engage professional artists and local designers who were commissioned to create the most sought-after flour sacks on the market. Sellers were quick to pick up on how their choice of sackcloth could influence the sales of cornmeal, rice, sugar, seed or flour.
Such a collaborative endeavor does not take hold without making an impact. This one lasted from the 1800s through the mid-1920s, through the Great Depression of the 1930s, through the war years of the 1940s and would have kept on going except for the intervention of petroleum products leading to the invention of the plastic bag. However, what has remained is the flour sack towel, the most desirable kitchen or tea towels due to the properties of softness, absorbency, and lint-free quality.
The Flour Sack Towel
While you can easily find a fine assortment of tea towels on the market today, the flour sack towel deserves mention. Once you have experienced the quality of a proper tea towel, you tend to have discerning taste when it comes to choosing your kitchen linens.
The flour sack towel easily ranks as the most popular choice of tea towel. It is unsurpassed as a polishing cloth for dishes and glassware, and works wonders on windows, too! Not as easy to locate as other tea towels, an excellent example of high-quality flour sack towels is found here at Mary’s Kitchen.
Here are some of the reasons for this recommendation:
★ 100% high-quality, premium unbleached cotton
★ Sized 27 x 27-inches
★ Professionally hemmed edges
★ Plain white to blend with any décor
★ Hanging loop sewn into a corner for easy storage
★ Easy-to-clean, machine wash and dry
★Thickness and durability
★ All-natural and soft enough to use on a baby’s bum
★ Value for money and wholesale pricing extended to all customers with no minimum imposed
★ Same-Day shipping
What do You do with a Tea Towel?
So, what is all this flap about the tea towel, and what exactly makes this towel so special? Where to start is the better question. The active cook tends to return the tea towel to a shoulder, so it is always handy. Ask any foodie, caterer, kitchen worker, chef or homemaker and you may have to get out your pencil to take notes. So, here goes:
★ Wipe surfaces and counters for both preparation and clean up
★ Always present to wipe hands
★ As an apron
★ As a drip cloth to lay out dishes to dry after washing
★ At the ready to wipe off any spills on the edge of a plate for presentation
★ As a stabilizer beneath the cutting board or mixing bowls to keep them in place
★ As an oven mitt or hot pad to quickly pull items from a hot oven or grabbing warm dishes
★ As a pad or trivet upon which to rest items right out of the oven
★ As a cover for proofing bread or while dough rises
★ To polish glassware
★ As a strainer
★ To squeeze out the water content from frozen spinach
★ To make cheeses
★ For dehydrating fruit
★ For drying herbs or seeds
★ To wash produce
★ As a lettuce crisper
★ To help keep food such as bread and rolls warm without getting soggy while being served
★ As a liner for other foods such as baked goods and snack chips
★ As the serviette or napkin at the dinner table
Given the many purposes of the tea towel, it stands to reason that you would want to equip your kitchen with a voluminous stock on hand just as large commercial kitchens do. The tea towel is quite simply the backbone of the operation. When the shipment is late, or the stock of towels is low, there is a bit of a panic for the lack of these workhorses.
Household and Other Uses for the Tea Towel
Beyond culinary chores, the tea towel has achieved universal applications, and the list keeps growing as people continue to rely on their extreme usefulness. Due to the tea towel’s unique absorbency and lint-free quality, it is the preferred towel to use on window panes.
It is an excellent polishing cloth because of its softness, which is also why mom finds them the best towel to use on baby. They make excellent diapers due to their durability and absorbency. They make the best burping cloths, and they don’t retain smells or stains. Women love the absorbency for drying their hair after a shower or bath.
Woodworkers prefer the soft tea towel cloth for finish carpentry. Wiping down pieces to clear them of sawdust in preparation for and applying stain and finish makes the work a pleasure.
Akin to the kerchief, their absorbency makes them a great workout towel whether wiping the sweat from arduous work or the repetition of a workout. They are great for taking up the moisture from equipment after use as well.
Gun owners prefer a soft cloth for cleaning their weapons, and the tea towel is the perfect choice for keeping them clean and ready to fire.
Enter the Craftspeople
Craftspeople are the best people to make utilitarian use of many things. The tea towel for the crafts-person is a universal delight. There is no end to the clever crafty uses of the tea towel such as:
1. Replace your wrapping paper. The tea towel becomes part of the gift when you wrap items with a tea towel. A bottle of wine gets cozy. Lay the towel out, possibly folded in half, and roll the bottle inside. You can draw down the edges at the top like a collar. Use some raffia or other decorative ties to seal the package.
2. Is there anything more apropos than wrapping a cookbook in a tea towel as a present? Find some tea towels with accent printing such as stripes or checks. This leads to the next level of crafting, which is embellishing them with your own stitchery.
3. Whether it is cross-stitch, needlepoint or embroidery, the plain white cloth simply teases the needleworker to break out the supplies of colorful floss and various needles to create a work of art.
As in days of old, you might like to simply hem the edges with decorative thread, or create some classic Redwork. The nearly trademark pastoral scenes of the English countryside as seen in Toile de Jouy fabrics engage the mind with ideas, although there is no shortage of subject matter for stitchery.
3. While a set of tea towels make an excellent present or housewarming gift, giving the gift of your own hand-stitched tea towels is double the surprise. Whether you use them as that extra touch to wrap presents or they are the present themselves, this is a craft option that opens up myriad possibilities.
4. Reminiscent of days gone by, you can bring back the energy of the classic flour sack towel and its heyday. Customizing tea towels with logos, slogans or mottoes is easy to achieve. Whether you choose to paint or print, there is another option to have the seller perform this function, if it is something that is offered. You can get a good idea of this service here.
5. If you are so inclined to express your artwork as others are doing, your tea towel art can be hung on the wall to display your talent. Honestly, it is difficult to stop the artist from making use of any material that presents such a clean, blank canvas as the flour sack tea towel.
6. Baking a pie and giving it away is a deliciously touching gesture of kindness. Take it a step farther, and wrap that pie in a tea towel. Draw the corners up as the pie is laid on the flat towel. Once they are bound, you have an instant handle for traveling with your pie.
7. Back to the kitchen, trade your salad spinner for the tea towel. After washing your leafy greens lay them out on the towel and then gently roll them up. Lightly pat the towel to absorb the moisture, and store them in the refrigerator inside the towel to keep them fresh and crisp.
Bringing this to a close by no means limits the ideas and uses for tea towels. It is one of those things that once you become used to how handy they are, you find yourself ensuring you have plenty in stock for however you plan to use them. Give them a try and you will see how universally satisfying the humble tea towel really is.