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What is a Tea Towel?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

A tea towel is a cloth which is intended for the specific use of drying dishes and cutlery after they have been washed. In addition, clean tea towels may be spread over a tea tray before tea things are put onto it, or used to cover warm scones or a teapot to prevent heat loss. Many kitchen supply stores sell tea towels. They are also readily obtainable in England and Ireland, two nations well known for their tea. For people outside of these nations, numerous mail order company are happy to supply genuine Irish and English tea towels.

Linen is the traditional fiber for tea towels, since it can be used to dry delicate plates and silverware without the risk of scratching. In general, tea towels are made with a simple weave, rather than a looped terry, and they are made in a hand towel size. Tea towels made from cotton are not uncommon, and a cotton tea towel tends to be much less costly, making it suitable for daily use. In some cases, a tea towel is woven in a pattern, while in other instances, it may be decorated with paint or embroidery.

Some people confuse the tea towel with the dish rag. A tea towel is kept spotlessly clean, because it is used on freshly washed dishes and as a cover for food intended for consumption. When the tea towel becomes damp, it is hung up to dry, and it will also be periodically washed for better sanitation. A dish rag, on the other hand, is a small rag used to wash dishes and wipe down counters. Some people prefer dish rags to sponges, since they can be frequently washed to cut down on bacteria.

In England and Ireland, decorative tea towels are sold as souvenirs, and they are sometimes designed to be hung on a wall or displayed in a frame. These tea towels run the gamut from old fashioned hand embroidered linen tea towels to plain cotton tea towels with garish paintings of famous landmarks. As a general rule, while these tea towels are perfectly usable for their intended purpose, they are kept for ornamental rather than practical reasons. Travelers may bring back stacks of these tea towels for friends, or keep them as a reminder of the trip.

In addition to being available in kitchen stores, a tea towel is also relatively easy to make. Absorbent cotton or linen can be cut down to size and hemmed to prevent stray threads. Ambitious sewers can embroider the resulting tea towel, or leave it plain. Whether you buy them or make them, a stack of fresh tea towels is a useful thing to have in a kitchen, since they can be used to cover hot foods, dry dishes, and perform other kitchen tasks.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon989694 — On Mar 17, 2015

Handwoven tea towels in linen or cotton are lovely and much nicer than store bought towels. They can last for many, many years longer than store bought.

By Mughal — On Jul 23, 2013

Salam, nice. Very informative.

By anon326532 — On Mar 22, 2013

I used a tea towel the other day when I took some glass items out of the dishwasher, I didn't want the still damp items to wet the counter. The next day I had some men working in the kitchen and when I made them some tea I put the cups on the tea towel knowing how men can be when working. It made me think about lining a tray with the tea towel to prevent scratches on a new tray and to wrap up rotis. Most people just use them to dry dishes but when I looked for these under drying cloths I couldn't find anything and then had to think "tea" towels. How does tea have anything to do with drying?

I think originally they must have been used more formally for presentation of tea in a tray rather than just for drying. It's a great idea.

By anon148299 — On Feb 01, 2011

I have been a fan of tea towels for decades as my dear mother-in-law presented me with my first and explained it was strictly for drying fine china which we didn't use often, but also for stemware, which we use daily for wine etc.

So I have two towel handles for my family and have taught them the rules. The linen towel is for the drying of items, the terry is for hands! I always try to buy a souvenir tea towel and gift them as well. I am going to look into a monogrammed one for my future daughter-in-law.

By anon99504 — On Jul 26, 2010

Tea towels can also be used to add atmosphere and color, to your kitchen. If you like a particular theme, a complimenting tea towel will add to the look in your kitchen. Decorative tea towels are both pretty and useful.

By raresteak — On Jul 06, 2010

In addition to being a useful kitchen material, the tea towel may make a tasteful decorative fabric. I like to use my tea towels to line the bread basket I bring out to complement various pasta dishes. The lined basket creates a restaurant atmosphere and assists in the presentation of the meal.

By jsw23 — On Jul 06, 2010

Tea towels make great, inexpensive wedding gifts. It's often very popular to monogram these handy cloths as a means of personalization.

Be sure to regularly wash tea towels to prevent harmful germs and mold from growing within fabric fibers between uses. The various surfaces wiped and dried with tea towels often serve as a haven for microscopic bacteria, so washing these towels often is a simple way to prevent disease from spreading in the home.

By apolo72 — On Oct 12, 2009

Wow. I had no idea. I always kept and used this kind of towel in my kitchen, but I called it a dish rag or kitchen towel! Now I know the difference!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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