The Mystery of Tea Towels

The Laundry Captain brought up the state of the kitchen napkin/towel drawer the other day.  I personally don’t give a rats hinder about the state of the towel drawer, but since he does all the laundry, folds it and puts it away neatly, I try to care.  Issue one was the state of many of the dishcloths.  They are stained.  Yes, they are.  They are dishcloths. They get stained. It is their nature.  Apparently the next person who goes to Target has to get new ones.  Fine.  Then we moved on to the stack of tea towels.  Their existential identity was questioned by the LC.

“What are tea towels good for and why do women like to give them to each other?”

He opined that they are not absorbent and useless for drying either hands or dishes. Or, they are too small and that renders them less than fully functional.  Therefore, they are taking up valuable towel-drawer real estate.  “Yeah, they are cute and all that, but what the hell are they good for?”  He even suggested a there was a clever businessman in some third world textile-producing country that developed the concept of tea towels in order to sell fabric scraps to Americans for big bucks.  “Ha-ha, just call them something clever and British sounding like tea towels and soon there will be tea towels shops all over and we will be rich!”

I like tea towels.  I do use them to cover bread, take food to someone’s house, wrap gifts, and even to cover a tea tray from time to time.  I do agree that we may have too many of them, however, so I have developed a plan to replace some aging cloth napkins with tea towel napkins.  (The photo above is only about half of my stash.)  I will cut them in half, hem that edge and we will have a stack of new napkins to replace the stained white ones we have had forever.  Next  mystery?  Why are napkins usually white, when it is also in their nature to get stained?

So what about you?  Do you use tea towels?  Do you have the answer to that nagging question of why women like to give one another tea towels?  And why ARE napkins white?


20 responses to “The Mystery of Tea Towels

  1. I have always thought that white cloth napkins were the spawn of satan. I’m sure they came into existence during the days of household servants and we never got smart enough to change. Hurrah for you and your brain!

  2. Napkins are white because they get stained and white can be bleached.

  3. What Penny said: they are white precisely because they will get dirty, and as such, it’s very helpful to be able to toss them in the laundry and bleach the bejeezus out of them without worrying about what that would do to colours.

    That said, I think coloured napkins are prettier.

    As for tea towels, I take it they’re different from dish towels? I always thought they were just two terms for the same concept.

  4. Tea towels are used to dry dishes in my house. Mostly they are souvenirs of far-off places. They work better once they have been washed a few times and softened up.
    Napkins are not white here. (Unless they come off that convenient roll of paper towels!)

  5. I don’t understand the difference between tea towels and dish towels – are tea towels linen and dish towels towelling? Obviously, we Australians might be missing something – my tea towels get used for all purposes. Mine frequently have burn marks from being used on a gas range – so they aren’t that pretty.

    I use Napisan (an oxygen bleach powder) on white napkins – gets the stains out.

  6. I always buy colored cloth napkins.

    And I love my tea towels (which is what I call the non-terry cloth dish towels – the terry ones are just dish towels – is that your differentiation, too?)

    I don’t have much counter space, so i lay one lengthwise along my counter to knead bread. And I use them to cover rising bread. And I use them to dry dishes, even though they aren’t as absorbent as the other kind. And I just like looking at them – so much prettier!

  7. I have commemorative tea towels that I’ve received as gifts, but I never use them…

  8. I use tea towels as dish towels, don’t tell the tea-towel police.

  9. I use tea towels as wraps for biscuits for the table, to cover dishes that are going off (potlucks, friends in need, baking frenzy happened, etc). I love them.

    Napkins are white so you can bleach the blazes out of them. I have some that are a lovely light copper color – they used to be red.

    The LC is pretty good with the conspiracy theories!

  10. As for white napkins, I don’t understand that at ALL (especially with you youngish kids in the house). I’m not sure if I have tea towels, actually. I have kitchen towels of the sturdier, more durable type, and I have kitchen towels of the thinner, finer-weave type. The former I use for drying lots of things, the latter more for covering bread while it rises, etc. They both work for me. What I need less of is the cloth napkins that my mom donated to me from her 70s stash – scary.

  11. as a huge fan of tea towels, and at the risk of pissing off the LC (whom I’m sure is a very wonderful man), tell him to back off of the tea towels. It doesn’t matter that they seam useless… anyone who bakes bread or makes lefse knows they are not!!

  12. I guess I am a collector of tea towels/dish cloths/dishtowels, table napkins – call them what you will. They are part of the memory bank and it is hard to get rid of them – and besides they are useful for all sorts of things, as enumerated by some of your readers.

  13. There are good tea towels and there are bad tea towels. The good ones are made of linen; they are absorbent and I use them to dry stuff, including hands when the hand towels inevitably run out. The bad tea towels are stiff cotton and not good for much beyond covering baking, as you say. They clog up your drawers and make you feel guilty when you think about getting rid of them That’s a hard step to take, especially when the person who gave them to you has passed away. I really like the napkin idea! Most people who still give me tea towels as presents are all tea towel users themselves so they know all this and would not give a bad tea towel. Phew.

  14. Regardless of whether you call them tea towels or dish towels, they are made of stiff cotton or linen to avoid transferring lint to dishes if you dry them by hand. Real linen works the best, and is more absorbent than cotton ones, as an earlier commenter mentioned.
    I love white linen napkins and don’t mind the work involved in crisply ironing the few antiques I have into submission for a dinner party. Otherwise, it’s straight out of the laundry onto the table (not antique), and always white, even though it is boring

  15. Everything Helena said. They must be linen. When I was well, I always ironed my tea towels but I haven’t got the heart to ask my helper to do it and I don’t really like the crumpled ones. I found clearing out my mother’s tea towel drawer one of the wobbliest-making parts of emptying her house, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting it to be. I mean, you prepare yourself for sorting through her clothes but it’s actually the kicthen that’s a minefield.

    And napkins are white so that you can tell when they’re clean, and they can be bleached.

  16. I’m rather paranoid about drying dishes with towels that might have “touched” someone’s hands. So we use “tea towels” to dry dishes only and terrycloth towels to dry hands only. I also use the tea towels to cover rising bread (not liking to get fuzz stuck in my bread dough).

    I’m one of those wierdos that buy tea towels as souveniers. I love the linen/cotton ones that I got in Ireland because they seem to be lasting forever (the cotton waffle weave ones from Alaska and Canada are wearing out quickly).

    I have no idea on the napkin thing, other to agree that historically, table “linens” were made of linen, which is bleachable and very white. Currently I use washable napkins made by my sister in law – puppies, froggies, fishies and nasturshims. All bright colors and I have fun seeing which napkin my guests pick to use.

  17. There are tea towels that are meant as decorations and ones that are meant to dry dishes. I use my Ikea ones to dry and my pretty ones to decorate. That means that too many pretty ones can be a problem. Like you said though, they are good for gift giving, covering bread or hot potatoes (cheese and potatoes are a staple meal here) and in a pinch they can be used as placemats. They also make a good cover for hot water bottles or cold packs. Just sayin’.

    You could, of course, get rid of some of the tea towels and use the space for yarn stash. No?

    Randomly, there’s a code here for towels. The striped ones are for your hands and the ones with squares for drying dishes. Unfortunately, I have trouble remembering which is which.

  18. Gwyndolyn O'Shaughnessy

    My husband (who does NOT spontaneously do the laundry, wanna trade?) defines “tea towels” as the lightweight, cotton or linen, fast-drying ones that were used for any cleanup. They are the ones that paper towels replaced.

    He defines “dish towels” as the non-terry ones in the kitchen, used for either dishes or hands. (Mom is horrified; she says “dish” towels are not the same as “hand” ones, because you wipe things OFF your hands and ONTO the dishes if you mix them up.)

    Auntie says that before either chlorine- or soda-based bleaches were available, the sun was used to bleach table linens, diapers, etc. It fades just about anything out of fabrics … including whatever color the fabric started with.

    (Just kidding about the trade.)

  19. Can a small towel be a tea towel? Is there a specific material that tea towels are made out of?

  20. My husband uses USED tea towels – that I dry dishes with – to cover bread, or pikelets when he makes them. I think this is so unhygeinic, We have just had a big fight, but I can’t find much to support me on the we, apart from they should be washed daily. I never wipe spills up, or the bench, with tea towels, I use the cloth I wash the dishes to do that.

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