Jean Mackenzie’s Tea Towel Collection

Jean is 92. Does she look her age? Catch the twinkle in her eye, her warming smile, a happy laugh, her smooth skin and neatly permed hair, listen to her memory that is crystal clear, with an awareness of the world at large, FaceTiming with family in England and the answer is definitely ‘no’. Take another look, the way arthritis has ravaged her hands, psoriasis has scaled her elbows and feet, osteoporosis has crumpled her spine, and diminished her height, and there may be a different answer.

Jean has led life to the full; working full-time from the age of 15 until her retirement, a Guide Leader, a Crown Green bowler, member of the Trefoil Guild, theatre goer, lifelong member of her church, sharing holidays at home, and abroad, with friends and family with a more active social life than many of us. Age has not changed that: whether it is seeing ‘Mamma Mia’ at the theatre, going to weekly Musical Memories’, sipping a glass of sherry, having a rant at Donald Trump for stealing Balmedie Beach or eating fish and chips with her family, she is still enjoying life to the full. She decorates her Zimmer frame at Christmas, with baubles and tinsel, walking with speed; no wheelchair for her.

What has this got to do with tea towels? Unmarried, Jean lived with her two younger sisters, until Myra died in 2006 and Betty moved into a Nursing Home in 2011.

“Living at home without Myra and Betty was so lonely. Moving around was hard, cooking exhausting, shopping impossible and when I was no longer able to visit Betty, I just felt despair. I don’t know why I stopped taking the thyroid medication. It was stupid”

Jean never told anyone how she felt, at the time. She didn’t ask for help; and when help was offered, she refused it. After a serious fall, a stay in hospital that shocked her family and a life-threatening illness, Jean moved into a Nursing Home, two and a half years ago; it may have not been what she would have planned but, truth be told, she didn’t have a choice, unless her choice be death.

“When you get to my age, this is a good place to live, it’s safe and fun, you have friends, and staff to help you, someone to talk to and watch the telly with”.

While her niece spent time with her, settling her in, I cleared her council flat. It was easy to do because she was organised and available to consult with, to make sure I was doing what she wanted with all her possessions. She wasn’t really interested; she wanted to put the past behind her and live in the present, make the most of just being alive. She didn’t want the responsibility of making decisions and having a lot of possessions; there’s only so much a person can deal with.

“You do it, Barbara” she would say. “You know what’s best”.

I thought I knew Jean but there were so many surprises. I found the postcards: a whole box full, from all her holidays, not destined for anyone. On the back of each was a daily record, in her unmistakeable, miniature handwriting. Others may keep diaries, Jean’s holidays were recorded on postcards; they were a delight to read, it was like being there, enjoying those holidays with her.

It was at this point that I found the tea towels. There were two kitchen drawers full of them, crumpled; there was a sense of abandonment.

As she said, “If I wasn’t cooking, what was the point of a tea towel, what was there to wash up?”

Jean said I could have them; this was a privilege, the chance to share, retrospectively, a part of her life she could still recall, and smile at with warmth. It is from her ‘Postcard Diary’ that I was able to identify when, and where, she bought some of her tea towels; every tea towel had a context, a memory. In fact, I can match most of the postcards with a tea towel; from the faded glory of Cambridge to the portrait of the Eiffel Tower, from the Gordon Tartan to Recipes from Scotland.  Where there wasn’t a Postcard Diary, I asked Jean about some of the tea towels; she could fill the gaps.

The totally obliterated logo of Inverewe Gardens intrigued me; Jean is of an age when removing stains meant boiling the offending items in a saucepan, on top of the stove. Not only were there the souvenir tea towels, there were the three Christmas ones, gaudy, thick towelling. And there were the events: the Millennium at Ferryhill Church and the Golden Jubilee of the Trefoil Guild. Only Jean could have a tea towel with instructions about how to test your smoke alarm (and who to ring if it went off). In total, she had 61; a few have gone to family members, some were initially relegated to the dust rags but 13 have now become part of the Afghan Hound puppets that were made for the Nottingham Puppetry Festival in March 2018 and the remainder hang proudly within my collection.

How many dishes had been wiped by her collection? Because all her tea towels had been used, no secret piles of unused ones at the back of a cupboard; for her, tea towels were functional souvenirs. For me, Jean’s collection of tea towels sums up the Virtual Tea Towel Museum: every tea towel tells a story, and Jean can remember many of those stories, with the aid of her ‘Postcard Diary’.

I asked Jean if she considered herself a tea towel collector.

“Don’t be silly. Tea Towels are for using. I’m not one of those people who buys brand new tea towels and sticks them in a drawer. When we went on holiday, or for a day out, if we spotted a tea towel we liked, we bought it. It would remind us of a good time but we would always put old, worn tea towels with the rags for cleaning and dusting. Didn’t have any qualms about that. My tea towels, that have you have now got, are just ones that we liked. Simple as that”.

I am pleased to be able to display Jean’s collection of tea towels, with their stories, as a ‘Special Exhibition’ in the Virtual Tea Towel Museum. They are personal, part of her story.

I have divided them into six Mini-Collections: Jean’s Interests, Visits with Family, Holidays Abroad, Holidays and Day Trips with the Trefoil Guild, ‘Odds and Sods’ and Aberdeen, ending with three ‘classic’ tea towels, from which we should all learn a lesson or two!!  To find out about each story, just tap the picture.

Jean’s Interests

Jean was a Girl Guide and a Guide Leader.  She devoted a lot of her time to the Guides and thoroughly enjoyed working with young women, encouraging their skills and independence.  She was a good organiser and loved the camping trips and became very knowledgable about the countryside.  She has a whole collection of photographs from her Guiding Days which are held by the Scottish Guiding Association……..

The Girl Guides were founded in 1910.  In 1935, some women who had been Guides wanted to meet up together and branches of ‘Old Guides’ were formed.  In 1943, all the branches of ‘Old Guides’ were amalgamated and a new organisation was set up called The Trefoil Guild.  Jean, and her sisters, were lifelong members and celebrated the Golden Jubilee in 1993 with their friends.  This year, 2018, is the 75th Anniversary of the Trefoil Guild but there is no celebratory tea towel, just mugs, fridge magnets and tote bags. How times changes!!………..

Jean’s other lifelong interest was Ferryhill Church which she attended regularly since she was a child.  She has many a tale about the ministers she has seen serve the church.  Today, Jean still attends Ferryhill Church, once every three weeks, when a volunteer picks her up from her Nursing Home and accompanies her.  After each service she stays for the tea and biscuits in the church hall.  This tea towel was ‘created’ in 2000, to celebrate the Millenium and has signatures of all church members at the time.

Visits with Family

Jean, Myra and Betty met up with their younger brother and his family at least twice a year, since he moved to London in the early 1950s.  They often went down to the ‘wilds’ of England to spend a week with them at Christmas or the family drove to Aberdeen, often to go on holiday together from there.  On such trips, many a tea towel was bought……..

Holidays Abroad

Jean loved going on holiday, especially abroad.  She sometimes went with friends, sometimes with family or just with her two sisters.  A lot of her ‘Postcard Diary’ was about holidays abroad……..

Holidays and Day Trips with the Trefoil Guild

Once a member of the Trefoil Guild, other members were Jean’s friends for life.  They went out for meals together locally, they went on day trips or short breaks and they went on holidays together.  The Trefoil Guild meant companionship and friendship.  As Jean would say;

”They were all my friends.  We had a shared interest in the Guides but it was more than that.  We developed new interests together.  I loved those days.  Many of my friends from Trefoil Guild have died but I still have the memories and, of course, there are the tea towels…..”

‘Odds and Sods’

There is a ‘mixed bag’ of tea towels, which aren’t easily categorised, but are part of Jean’s Collection…….


It’s not often that you buy a tea towel from the place where you live.  These two are classics.  The Montage of Aberdeen is one that I, personally, have looked for and have never found but is one that I will blog about in the future, since a lot of my life has been tied up with Aberdeen.  The only thing that Jean said about this tea towel is “It’s a shame that there isn’t a picture of the beach but at least there isn’t a picture of Balmedie Golf Course which Donald Trump stole from us”

The Test It tea towel is incredible.  To be fair, Jean didn’t buy this; it was given to her when the Council refurbished her kitchen at Thistle Court, circa 2010. There is a Tea Towel Blog about this on dated 1 April 2016……..

And finally………..

These three are excellent examples of how not to care for your tea towels…don’t boil them in a pan on the top of your stove. They are, however, well remembered and come with a story.  These three, together with “Red and White Check’, ‘Rose’’, ‘Passiflora’, ‘Baking Bear’, ‘Coffee’, ‘Colman’s Mustard’, ‘Isle of Arran’, ‘Yellow Rabbit’, ‘Woburn Abbey’ and ‘Herbs and Spices’ eventually became part of the two Afghan Hounds for the Nottingham Puppetry Festival in March 2018.  That’s the sort of thing Jean would approve of!!  The rest are now integrated into my Collection and are used regularly.  End of the story.







4 thoughts

  1. What a beautiful woman and friend, Barbara ♥ A life well lived. So enjoyed this post and all the tea towels. Rather wishing that some of those “puppet” tea towels hadn’t quite ended up there lol…loved the Coleman;s Mustard and the herbs ones, but they did make for a fun puppet, and gave their all for a good cause! Hope I make it to England one day to see some of these wonderful places!


    • Thanks for that. It was a wrench using the tea towels for the Afghan Hounds but It had to be the theme of those hounds. I only used the very worst. Lesson to be learnt – never boil a tea towel on a regular basis!!! Barbara


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