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A History of the Tea Towel

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A History of the Tea Towel

Have you ever wondered what put the ‘tea’ into the tea towel? We’re diving into the history of tea towels, production, and the evolution of these kitchen staples.

What is a tea towel?

A tea towel, like any other towel or napkin, is used to clean up spills, dry surfaces, and tidy spaces. However, unlike a regular towel or napkin, tea towels are both durable, softer, and much thinner than a bath towel. They tend to be made from linen, cotton, or a combination of both.

Tea towels are also a much more aesthetic piece with woven or printed designs that are as much decorative as they are functional.

A tea towel may also be called a dish towel or even a glass towel.

Tea towels are both functional and aesthetic

(Tea towels are both functional and aesthetic)


Where did the ‘tea’ in tea towel come from?

While towels have no doubt been used in some form to dry dishes around the world, tea towels became a symbol of status in Victorian England during the 18th century. As access to textiles increased across the nation, linen became a popular fabric in upper class households to dry crystal and fine China dishes. Linen, a fabric derived from linseed plants, prevented dishes and cups from being scratched, and kept them lint-free.

These tea towels also became an opportunity for a lady to display her creative skills. Women would often hand-embroider their own tea towels, which were then displayed during teatime across a serving tray or wrapped around a hot teapot. These beautiful textiles would then become family heirlooms and be passed down for future generations.

The flour sack tea towel

Tea towels served an equally decorative and functional purpose in America during the 20th century. During the Great Depression, many families repurposed their flower sacks into tea towels by cutting them up into strips. Moreover, flour makers noticed this trend and began to create their own unique designs on their flour sacks. Thus began a new desire for printed tea towels.

Jacquard tea towels in France

A Jacquard fabric is any fabric where the pattern is directly woven into the material rather than embroidered, printed or stamped on. A jacquard weave will also have the reverse pattern that is visible on the other side of the fabric.

Le Jacquard Francais weave using traditional methods

(Le Jacquard Francais weave their fabrics using traditional methods)


The Jacquard weave was created by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. In an effort to speed up the weaving process, Jacquard created an automated loom using punch cards. This allowed textiles to be created at twice the speed. Napoleon Bonaparte granted the patent for Jacquard’s loom in Lyon himself to compete with Britain’s industrialization. In fact, Jacquard’s loom would later play a role in the development of other programmable machines like the modern-day computer.

Modern manufacturers like Le Jacquard Francais continue to preserve this French legacy in the manufacturing of their tea towels by preserving this ancestral expertise. They have continued the practice of traditional weaving at the Vosges factory for over 130 years.

Tea towels today

Tea towels continue to be popular both for their design and versatility. Did you know Vincent Van Gogh created several paintings on tea towels when he ran out of canvas? In fact, a painting of flowers Van Gogh created on a red and white striped tea towel sold for millions of dollars today. Talk about versatile!

Van Gogh used tea towels to paint when he ran out of canvases

(Van Gogh used tea towels to paint when he ran out of canvases)


While there is a preference for cotton or linen tea towels in our current market, tea towels remain an essential staple for any kitchen. Plus, when your tea towel is at the end of its life cycle, you can cut the towel up to use as rags for cleaning around the house.

What is your favourite tea towel brand? We’d love to hear from you.

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