What Are Tea Towels and How Can You Use Them?

Tea towels are an essential kitchen accessory that have a variety of uses. Here is an in-depth look at what tea towels are, the different types available, and creative ways to use them around the home.

What Are Tea Towels?

Tea towels, also sometimes called dish towels, are versatile cotton towels used for drying dishes, glassware, cutlery, and more after washing up. They are typically made of a quick-drying, absorbent material like cotton or a cotton-blend, and measure around 16 by 25 inches.

Tea towels are different than dishcloths used for washing dishes, as they are meant for drying only. They also differ from hand towels, which are for drying hands, and do not absorb as much water.

Compared to paper towels, tea towels are more eco-friendly, economical, and absorbent. High-quality tea towels can also be quite decorative.

A Brief History of Tea Towels

Tea towels have been used for drying dishes since the Victorian era in the late 19th century. The name comes from the popularity of afternoon tea during this time period. Wealthy households would display ornate and decorative tea towels for guests to use after tea.

By the early 20th century, tea towels shifted from decorative to functional, and were used daily in kitchens to dry dishware. Later on, tea towels became a popular household item adorned with decorative prints, patterns, and embroidery.

Today, tea towels are still a kitchen essential, available in a wide array of colors, designs, and materials.

Different Types of Tea Towels

There are a few main types of tea towels to consider:

Cotton Tea Towels

  • 100% cotton tea towels are highly absorbent, quick to dry, and durable. They are a kitchen staple.
  • Opt for high-quality, high thread count cotton for maximum absorbency.
  • Can be bleached to help keep white and get out stains.

Linen Tea Towels

  • Made of 100% linen from the flax plant, linen tea towels are very absorbent and fast-drying.
  • Linen is smoother than cotton and adds a more upscale look.
  • Wrinkles easily and requires ironing.

Microfiber Tea Towels

  • Made from synthetic microfiber material, these towels are super absorbent and fast drying.
  • They are durable, lint-free, and quick to launder.
  • Less breathable than natural fabrics.

Bamboo Tea Towels

  • Bamboo viscose tea towels provide great absorbency.
  • They are soft, sustainable, and antimicrobial.
  • Prone to shrinking when washed.

Hemp Tea Towels

  • Very absorbent and durable like cotton, but more sustainable.
  • Naturally antimicrobial with a quick dry time.
  • Can be rough or scratchy until washed several times.

Key Features of High-Quality Tea Towels

When selecting tea towels, look for the following features:

  • Absorbency – The towel should soak up water quickly and prevent dripping. High thread counts and certain materials like cotton improve absorbency.
  • Fast-drying – You want towels that will dry swiftly after use to prevent mildew, bacteria, and odors.
  • Durability – Quality tea towels will withstand frequent washing and drying without fraying or tearing.
  • Stain resistance -natural fibers like cotton and linen can be pre-treated to resist stains for a cleaner look.
  • Texture – Tea towels shouldn’t be too rough. Softer, more tactile towels are nicer to handle.
  • Appearance – Decorative prints, colorful patterns, and embellishments give tea towels visual appeal.

How to Use Tea Towels for Drying Dishes

Tea towels are most commonly used for drying dishes, glassware, and silverware after washing. Here are some tips:

  • Unfold the tea towel and lay it flat near the drying rack, sink, or dishwasher.
  • When drying dishes, grip them with the tea towel and pat dry gently to absorb water. Avoid rubbing, which can leave spots.
  • For glassware, gently hold the base and dry the inside and outside to prevent drips.
  • Lay flatware utensil-side down on the towel to air dry.
  • Refold used towel sections inward to expose dry areas as needed.
  • When done, drape used tea towel over sink or oven handle to dry before reusing.
  • Wash tea towels frequently to maximize absorbency and prevent bacterial growth.

Other Clever Ways to Use Tea Towels Around the Home

Beyond the kitchen, tea towels have many other practical uses:

For Cooling Hot Dishes

  • Fold a dry tea towel and place hot pots, pans, and baking sheets on top to protect counters.

As Makeshift Oven Mitts

  • Grip hot cookware handles with a folded up tea towel to remove from oven.

For Polishing Glassware

  • Dampen a tea towel and rub gently to make glasses sparkling and streak-free.

As Napkins

  • In a pinch, tea towels can double as napkins for messy foods or kids.

For Draining Fried Foods

  • Lay fried foods like chicken or fries atop a tea towel to soak up excess grease.

For Cleaning Counters

  • Tea towels easily wipe up spills and messes on kitchen counters and tables.

For Drying Produce

  • Gently pat fresh greens and berries dry with a tea towel after washing.

As a Trivet

  • Stack tea towels as an extra trivet to protect surfaces from hot pans.

For Polishing Chrome and Stainless Steel

  • Rub clean chrome appliances and stainless steel using a damp tea towel for a streak-free shine.

As Makeshift Potholders

  • Insulate hands from hot dishes by wrapping a folded tea towel around them.

For Dusting

  • Slightly damp tea towels attract dust when wiping down furniture or windowsills.

Creative Ways to Store and Display Tea Towels

There are many creative ways to store tea towels when not in use:

  • Hooks – Hang tea towels from hooks on the wall or behind cabinet doors.
  • Railings – Drape tea towels over oven or sink railings for easy access.
  • Baskets – Neatly fold tea towels inside a basket on the counter or shelving unit.
  • Dishtowel Bars– Install commercial dishtowel bars with arms to neatly hang towels.
  • Drawers – Designate a kitchen drawer just for tea towels and dishcloths.
  • Shelving – Fold and stand tea towels upright in open shelves or wire racks.
  • Pegboards – Attach hooks to a pegboard or magnetic strips to hang towels.
  • Ladder Towel Racks – Hang tea towels on the rungs of creative ladder racks.
  • PVC Pipe – Thread PVC piping on the wall to create hanging rods for tea towels.

Get creative with tea towel storage solutions that keep them easily accessible but also add style to your kitchen.

Questions About Tea Towels

Here are answers to some common questions about tea towels:

How often should you replace tea towels?

It’s best to replace heavily used tea towels every 6 months to 1 year. Towels that are not used daily may last a few years. Replace them whenever they become overly worn, torn, or unable to absorb well.

Should you wash new tea towels before first use?

Yes, it’s advisable to launder new tea towels in hot water before first use to maximize hygiene and absorbency. This helps remove any residues or chemicals from manufacturing.

How do you wash tea towels?

Wash tea towels separately or with other kitchen items using hot water, and dry completely before reusing. You can add bleach to periodic washes to disinfect and brighten them. Avoid fabric softener, as it reduces absorbency.

Should you use different tea towels for hands and dishes?

It’s best to use separate towels – one for drying hands, and a different set for dishes. This prevents transferring germs from hands onto clean dishes. Different colors help differentiate them.

Are microfiber or cotton tea towels better?

It depends on your priorities. Microfiber dries fastest, while cotton is most eco-friendly and gets softer over time. For sustainability and absorption, 100% cotton is preferable for most purposes.

How do you fold a tea towel for hanging?

Place the towel face down. Fold the towel in half lengthwise, then fold into thirds horizontally. Flip folded towel over and hang on rack with open fold facing outwards.

How do you get stains out of tea towels?

Soak stained towels in hot water with oxygen bleach before washing. For grease stains, apply dish soap and let sit before laundering. Borax and baking soda also help remove stubborn stains from tea towels.

Creative Ways to Decorate and Embellish Tea Towels

There are endless possibilities when it comes to decorating and embellishing plain tea towels:

  • Embroidery – Hand embroider names, monograms, flowers or other designs using embroidery floss.
  • Applique – Sew on decorative fabric shapes like hearts or stars using a zig-zag stitch.
  • Iron-on vinyl – Apply iron-on vinyl designs, letters or monograms using a hot iron.
  • Fabric markers – Draw designs, names or messages freehand with fabric markers.
  • Painting – Use textile paints to hand-paint designs, stripes, dots or stenciled patterns.
  • Bleaching – Create interesting bleached designs using a bleach pen or contact paper stencils.
  • Tie-dye – Fold and tie tea towels to create colorful tie-dye patterns when dipped in dye.
  • Stamping – Use carved stamps and fabric paint to stamp repetitive prints or borders.
  • Sew-on patches – Sew colorful fabric patches, rickrack, ribbons, lace or trims.
  • Decorative edging – Sew on ruffled edges, fringed edges or decorative border trims.

Personalize tea towels for yourself or to give as homemade gifts using these creative embroidery and embellishment techniques.

Fun Tea Towel Slogans & Quotes

Printed tea towels featuring fun cooking-themed slogans, quotes and sayings are very popular. Here are some cute ideas:

  • “Kitchen closed – Come back after wine!”
  • “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.”
  • “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of my kitchen!”
  • “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.”
  • “I kiss better than I cook.”
  • “Done with the dishes!”
  • “Dishonest man here. Ask me no questions & I’ll dry no dishes.”
  • “Really good cooks never wash dishes. (They get someone else to do it for them)”
  • “If you don’t like what’s being served, you just have to cook it to your own taste.”
  • “I don’t cry over spilled milk because it could have been wine.”
  • “Kitchen closed for the night. See you at breakfast!”

Choose fun towel designs that reflect your personality or cooking style. Word play using cooking terms and foodie references make the best kitchen tea towels.


Tea towels are a versatile and economical kitchen staple that have evolved from fancy Victorian drying towels into a hardy, decorative necessity. With options ranging from cotton to linen, microfiber to bamboo, there is a tea towel material to suit every kitchen.

Make sure to select high-quality, absorbent tea towels and clean them frequently for the best functionality. Tea towels have myriad uses beyond drying dishware, from cooling hot pans, to polishing glassware, drying produce and more. And they can be embellished with embroidery or prints to add style to your kitchen decor.

So explore the many varieties and applications of the humble, hard-working tea towel – it offers almost limitless possibilities for creative use around the kitchen and home!