What is a Tea Towel? A Complete Guide

A tea towel is a handy cloth that you use to dry your dishes, glasses, and silverware. These towels are important in kitchens because they have soft, absorbent material and nice designs.

Wondering what sets these towels apart from regular towels? Keep reading for a quick history and guide to these useful cloths.

History of Tea Towels

Tea towels have their origins in 18th century England, when they were considered an upscale household item. Wealthy women would sew and adorn high-quality linen tea towels to use during afternoon tea.

18th-century origins with an image of an upscale household in England, portraying the use of linen tea towels during afternoon tea.

Over time, tea towels evolved from a luxurious status symbol to an everyday essential in British homes. When there was a shortage of linen in the Great Depression, resourceful families started making tea towels from cotton sacks used for flour. Even though the material was simple, these reused towels worked really well.

Today, they are available in a variety of materials, sizes, colors and designs to suit any kitchen. These towels have a long history and are still useful today. People often cherish them as sentimental items that are passed down through generations.

Characteristics of Tea Towels

They have some defining characteristics that set them apart from regular towels:


The two main materials used to make tea towels are cotton and linen.

  • Cotton tea towels are inexpensive, soft, lightweight, and very absorbent. They are the most common type found in most kitchens today.
  • Linen tea towels have a delicate, thin texture. They are smooth, long-lasting, and become softer over time. However, linen absorbs less moisture than cotton.


While they vary by brand, tea towels typically range in size from 15 x 25 inches to 28 x 28 inches. The smaller ones are good for drying small dishes and glassware, while the larger ones are great for general kitchen tasks.


They come in a variety of designs, from holiday and floral patterns to vintage themes. You can find towels with simple patterns along the edges or ones with artwork that covers the whole towel.

Common Uses for Tea Towels

Traditional Uses

  • Drying dishes, glassware, utensils after washing.
  • Lining baking sheets and cooling racks when cookies, breads, and other baked goods come out of the oven.
  • Wrapping breads, rolls, muffins, and other baked goods for picnic.
picnic basket filled with food wrapped in tea towel

Modern Uses

  • Use as makeshift napkins or placemats for casual dining.
  • Dry and polish glassware and stemware.
  • Protect surfaces from hot pans and dishes.
  • Substitute for paper towels.
  • Clean and dry spills quickly.
  • Roll up and use as a hot pad.

How Tea Towels Differ from Regular Towels

It’s easy to confuse tea towels and regular towels. While similar, there are some key differences:

1. Absorbency

  • The delicate, lightweight nature of tea towels makes them less absorbent than standard kitchen towels.
  • Regular towels are made from terry cloth or other thick, soft fabrics. They are really good at soaking up water when you’re drying your hands or dealing with tough kitchen tasks.

2. Durability and Intended Uses

  • Tea towels are designed for delicate tasks like drying glassware, dishes, and silverware where a soft touch is needed.
  • Regular kitchen towels can withstand rigorous cleaning, drying, and scrubbing required for pots, pans, countertops, and more.

3. Decorative Aspects

  • Tea towels often feature colorful, novelty prints and charming designs. They can be displayed as decorative linens.
  • Regular kitchen towels tend to have plain, simple designs focused more on utility rather than appearance.

4. Thickness

  • Tea towels have a thin, lightweight feel. They are more delicate and require gentle care.
  • Regular towels are thicker and soak up more water, making them better for cleaning and drying.

5. When to Use Each

  • For tough cleaning and drying jobs, grab a regular kitchen towel.
  • When handling fragile dishes or glassware fresh from the wash, go for a tea towel.

Caring for Tea Towels

Follow these caring tips:


  • Read care instructions. Some may require gentle machine washing while others must be hand washed. Always check the label.
  • Use a gentle laundry detergent suitable for delicates.
  • Air dry or dry on a low tumble dry setting. High heat can damage tea towels.
  • Iron them when they are a bit wet, using medium heat. This helps maintain their shape and design.

With proper care, a high quality tea towel can last for years, maintaining its artwork and utility. Follow any special washing instructions and avoid harsh chemicals to extend the lifespan.


Tea towels have been around since the Victorian era when people used them during tea time. Nowadays, they are a regular part of modern kitchens. Instead of just drying dishes, tea towels also add a nice touch of decoration to the kitchen. These soft cloths come in various prints and colors to suit any kitchen’s look.

If you take good care of them, these towels can stay with you for a long time, adding a decorative touch to your kitchen while also being useful every day.

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

What is tea towel fabric called?

Tea towels are commonly made from either cotton or linen fabric. Cotton tea towels are soft, lightweight, and absorbent, while linen tea towels have a delicate, thin texture.

Can a tea towel be used as a hand towel?

While tea towels are primarily designed for tasks like drying dishes and glassware, you can also use them as temporary hand towels. Keep in mind that they might not be as thick as regular hand towels and may not absorb as much moisture.

What do British people call tea towels?

In the UK, people just call them “tea towels.” The term is widely used and understood across the UK to describe the versatile towels used in kitchens for drying dishes or hands.

What is the difference between a tea towel and a dish towel?

The primary difference lies in their intended uses. Tea towels are designed for delicate tasks such as drying glassware and silverware, whereas dish towels, often made of thicker fabric like terry cloth, are more suitable for heavy-duty cleaning, drying, and scrubbing in the kitchen.


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