History of Tea Towels

History of the tea towel

Since we humans first emerged from the primeval swamps we've needed to keep our cooking utensils dry. No wonder we've developed such a fascination with that most fundamental of accessories, the tea towel - or dish towel as it is sometimes called in the US.

Fast forward to the 18th century. The tea towel has reached the pinnacle of its perfection (never again to be matched until the arrival on the scene of the Radical Tea Towel Company in the 21st century).

Tea towels are now gracing the highest tables of the land and are made of linen, a fibre derived from the flax of linseed plants. The soft texture of the fabric makes them ideal for drying expensive bone china, and tea towels are flourished with pride by the grand ladies of the time who are more than happy to do the drying up, not trusting their prized plates to their clumsy servants.

When not drying their crockery, these ladies would embroider the towels, creating beautiful heirlooms to be passed down through the generations.

True to its name, the tea towel was in its element as an ingredient in the great British tea ceremony. There it rubbed shoulders with the finest crystal and chinaware and was designed to match the rest of the table linen. Often it was wrapped around the tea pot to insulate it, used to prevent drips or gracefully draped over bread and cakes to keep them fresh. It was not until the Industrial Revolution that the tea towel became a mass-produced consumer item and manufacturers turned to fibres such as cotton.

In the early 20th century, American housewives - in good democratic tradition - would often reuse rough cotton animal feed sacks by cutting them up into dish towels. Not content with their unfinished appearance, however, they embroidered them with intricate patterns, despite the difficulty of working with the coarse weave of the sacks.

In modern times, tea towels can be made of cotton, linen union (a mixture of linen and cotton) or terrycloth, a thick cotton pile.

Still an object of fascination in the 21st century, the tea towel has become the canvas on which we paint our life and our obsessions.  In today's more democratic times, the Radical Tea Towel Company is pleased to be able to bring fine tea towels to the masses.

We use the finest materials and printing techniques and combine them with bold messages. The results are unique tea towels and aprons that you will want to keep or give as presents to rally family, friends and relatives to the cause!

101 uses for a tea towel

The tea/dish towel must be one of the most flexible items there is. No doubt your first thought is "here's something to dry the dishes with". But that would be to overlook the huge range of other uses to which tea towels have been put over the years.


The most unusual and distinguished of these must be as a canvas by none other than the great Van Gogh. Late in his career, the impoverished genius often ran out of conventional canvas, which was anyway expensive. He would write to his brother, Theo, imploring him to send more, but in the meantime painted on whatever came to hand. And if that was a tea towel, so be it.

In fact, some of his works seem to be painted on tea towels with a red border - perhaps they came from the kitchen of the Auberge Ravoux in Auvers where he was staying at the time? A still life with flowers by Van Gogh, painted on a tea towel, fetched £2.1m at auction in 2000. So keep hold of your Radical Tea Towel - you never know, it could pay you back handsomely one day.

Not all of us can aspire to be great painters, of course but we can still be imaginative in putting our tea towels to new uses... Several of our customers have said our tea towels are too good for drying the dishes and so they have hung them on the wall instead!

Other wackier suggestions are: A shepherd's head dress in your child's Nativity play? Or peg one to a stick and wave it on your next demonstration? Knotted at each corner, a tea towel should offer a lot more protection from the sun than a mere handkerchief. Forget the pillow fight, why not have a tea towel fight? Or fold one in two, sew up two sides and put some handles on - you've got a handy little bag-for-life which supermarkets will be condemned to credit you shopping points for. The possibilities and fun are endless. Why not let us know if you dream up a particularly radical use?

And, of course, you could always use it for the purpose for which it was designed - as a kitchen accessory. A bright new tea towel from Radical Tea Towel will bring a welcome breath of fresh air to any kitchen. And remember to think of the environment when you buy our tea towels - don't just throw your old ones out. Why not cut them up into dishcloths or floor cloths instead and help reduce your carbon footprint?