All about tea towels

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Here is where you can find everything you ever wanted to know about tea towels and didn’t dare ask – to use the phrase coined by Doctor David Reuben (except his knowledge bank was not tea towels, of course).

What to do with a tea towel

This was my first Tea Towel Blog of 2016.  I dedicate this Tea Towel Blog to the sceptics and non-believers, those who do not see the beauty and joy in a tea towel; to those who have a dishwasher and do not see the need for a tea towel; to those who wash up and leave the dishes on the draining board to dry; to those who have a lot of takeaways and/or use paper plates and finally, I dedicate this blog to those people who have great creativity skills and who can use a sewing machine.

Lots of different people have some wonderful suggestions about what you can do with a tea towel that transcends using them to dry dishes and at the same time relive some great memories.  Alternative uses for tea towels fall into two categories: firstly, those that do not involve altering the tea towel in any way and, therefore at any time, the tea towel can revert to its original use; secondly, those suggestions that involve changing the use of the tea towel altogether.

Christmas is a time to get together with friends and family, many of whom I haven’t seen for a long time.  This year I was talking to someone about my Tea Towel Blog and my tea towel collection.  The most frequently asked question is “What do you do with all those tea towels?”  What a question!!  They all get used on a rotational basis.  But when I thought about this afterwards, I do put my tea towels to a lot of different uses, as do my friends.  Tea towels are very versatile; they are the original multi-taskers.

The whole principle of tea towels is that they are environmentally friendly; they are reusable and recyclable so preventing waste. The fact that they come in a lot of different materials increases their versatility – terry towelling, cotton, pure linen, linen mix.  Let’s start with how many different things you can do with a tea towel without actually changing it:

  • One of Mary Berry’s shortcuts is that if you are holding an Afternoon Tea Party, make the sandwiches the day before, cover them with a damp tea towel and put them in the fridge.  This way you are much less rushed on the day of the event and therefore able to enjoy it more yourself. Does this work? I was sceptical but my friend Liz tried it and it worked.  The sandwiches were as fresh as if they had been made on the day.  As everyone says these days “If Mary Berry says it, it must be right”
  • Having a lot of tea towels can be very useful when moving house.  In 2003, I used all my tea towels to wrap all my china, crockery, pottery and glassware.  The result was no breakages.  Tea towels are much more flexible than newspaper, are thicker than tissue paper and clearly do not contribute to landfill.  Also your hands, and china, do not end up covered in newspaper print.
  • When I was at work, I often lent my tea pots and china for events we held like our Annual General meeting.  I always wrapped everything in tea towels for protection; they also proved very useful for wiping up before bringing everything back home. This made sure that I didn’t bring home dirty crockery.
  • With my new interest in caravans, tea towels prove very useful for protecting breakable things when we are on the move.  Now, of course, I have tea towels with a caravan theme.
  • I use my Christmas tea towels to wrap all my Christmas china up after 5 January until it is ready to come out again on 1 December. This saves storage space because the Christmas tea towels are not stored separately
  • I often use a new tea towel as wrapping paper for birthday, Christmas and wedding gifts.  You can buy good quality tea towels very cheaply these days either in multi-packs in a supermarket or from online sellers who are having a sale.  There are a number of advantages to using a tea towel as wrapping paper; it is not wasteful because the ‘wrapping paper’ has a use in itself, saving landfill (most wrapping paper cannot be recycled). Tea towels can disguise awkward shapes, are not ripped by protruding corners and are flexible.  There is no need for cellotape, you can just use string. This gives it a rustic look and the string can be used again.
  • A friend of mine loves collecting items with the London Underground map.  Her latest acquisition is a set of placemats.  She has used her London Underground tea towel as a table centre which I have to say looks very smart.
  • Some tea towels make great table centres and can act as an alternative to a table cloth. Alternatively, ‘themed’ tea towels make good place settings for a special occasion e.g. Christmas, birthday party
  • Fold a tea towel as a lining for a bread basket.  If serving warmed bread or rolls use the folds to cover the contents so it retains it’s warmth.
  • Tea towels are excellent as trays covers if you are wanting to cover a shabby tray or want to add a bit of difference to a special occasion.
  • I read on http://www.all-tea-towels.co.uk about the idea of having a pile of tea towels in a guest toilet so that each guest can use a different hand towel.  Towelling tea towels are most appropriate for this.  They must have learnt this from Claridges hotel where there is a pile of towels in each of the toilets for customers.
  • I have used older, slightly more boring tea towels to line drawers.  They are more robust than drawer lining paper, can be washed and re-used or alternatively put back into circulation as a tea towel and replaced by another.  The green/white and blue/white checked ones are tea towels I inherited from my mother and didn’t want to get rid of it, but they lack a ‘little something’; similarly the red and white one was inherited from Dorothy.   I think towelling ones work the best because they are softer and can be fitted easily into any size drawer.
  • Tea towels can be used in the same way as shelf liners.  Especially useful are the cheap honey-combed cotton ones, when they have shrunk, because they fit more easily on a shelf
  • A damp tea towel is excellent for proving home made bread; just lay it across the bread tin and put in a warm place

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  • A clean (but definitely not damp) tea towel is useful for covering cakes and bread that has just come out of the oven, before they are ready to be put into tins.  During the cooling process the tea towel protects them from dust and insects.
  • An age-old tip is that a dampened tea towel can be used during ironing to help remove tricky creases (or to put a creases in the front of a trouser leg, if that is your fashion choice).
  • If you are like me, a spaghetti-lover, you know that eating it can be a messy business.  I have often given guests a well-pressed tea towel to cover themselves from tomato sauce – a more practical form of napkin for messy eating.  It allows people to eat in a relaxed fashion rather than being self-conscious.
  • Tea towels make a great covering for cork boards – a more interesting, and changeable, feature.  In a restaurant on Arran I saw a tea towel with the pattern of a Tunnocks Tea Cake on a notice board which made it a real feature.  Pin marks cause no real damage and therefore the tea towel can be changed at regular intervals and you still have a household object
  • Tea towels are a real asset at a picnic.  They can be used to wrap both food and china for carrying but then are also available to wipe sticky fingers, use as a table cloth or napkin or wrap up dirty cutlery before taking them home. This avoids taking paper towels and creating more litter and waste
  • One of the ‘whackiest’ ideas I have heard for old tea towels is to roll up three tea towels you no longer want to use, plait them, tying up the ends and it can be used as a dog rope toy or draught excluder.
  • When I was in Madeira two years ago, I saw some great tea towels which were black, honey-combed cotton with the traditional Madeiran bird.  It suddenly occured to me that these would make great hand towels in the kitchen because they do not show up stains and do not lose their colour with regular washing.  During the Christmas season I use a towelling tea towel with a ‘Have a Happy Christmas’ on it as a hand towel, a cheery message for Christmas.  It saves people using the regular tea towels as hand towels. Much more hygienic.
  • This is a suggestion from Barbara who places old tea towels under her cat litter tray to catch any ‘spillages’.  Sounds like a good idea
  • Barbara also uses the larger style, brand new tea towels to cover her ironing pile. This stops the cats from sitting on her newly washed laundry.  This is a good idea because a pile of laundry, waiting for ironing is like a magnet to a cat.  I have the same problem with cats!!

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  • I can remember, back in the 60’s, that you could buy two plastic strips through which you could slide the ends of a tea towel to make it into a wall hanging.  These days, there are so many artists designing tea towels that you could justify framing them e.g. Wimbledon Centre Court (www.all-tea-towels.co.uk), Suffragettes (Radical Tea Towel Company), the London Eye by Penny Seume…
  • Tea towels have always been the traditional way of making a costume for a young child in their Navity Play (tea towel on the head with a tie round it makes a good shepherd) or for a fancy dress party.  My friend Helen demonstrates the adult version: either a full outfit or or the ‘tabard

There are, of course, a lot of suggestions about how you can transform a tea towel permanently into something else:

  • Tea towels are just the right size for making a tube to hold plastic bags, elastic at both ends.   Not only useful, but an easy gift to make.
  • Jane is big into sewing.  Her suggestion was that a couple of tea towels, preferably good quality linen, could be sewn together and lined to make a tote bag.  This is very topical at a time when all shops are now charging 5p for any plastic bag.
  • I decided to make a pillow slip from 2 tea towels for my godson.  He was big into steam railways and I managed to get two different tea towels about steam railways.  I did cheat by not tackling a flap to cover the end of the pillow but used press studs which was equally as effective.
  • 6 tea towels, sewn together, make a unique table cloth (8 if you have a really long, extending table).  The key is to get tea towels of exactly the same size.  I chose celebratory tea towels for the 2012 London Olympics.  No one else has one like it!!
  • Lots of people use tea towels sewn together to make covers for big kitchen equipment like mixers, protecting them from dust.  It can give a unique feel to the kitchen
  • How about using a couple of stylish tea towels to make an apron? This could be a way of giving a theme to your kitchen, if you match the equipment covers, a couple of tea towels and the apron.

There are so many more ideas for what to do with a tea towel.  I am sure Google can give you a lot more answers or why not just do the wiping up?

 

How to look after your Tea Towels

If you look on the internet for hints as to the best way of looking after your tea towels, you will find loads of websites, and suggestions, that involve promoting specific washing powders.  What is clear from these sites is that the terms ‘tea towels’, dish cloths’, ‘dish towels’, ‘kitchen cloths’, ‘dish dryer’ (and many others) are used interchangeably.  I use the term ‘tea towel’ to mean the piece of cloth designed for drying dishes after they have been washed up, when they are clean.  I’m not talking about towels you wipe your hands on or cloths to wipe down work surfaces.  The first stage to caring for your tea towels is to only use them for the purpose for which they were designed.  If used properly, a tea towel should never become stained and should last forever (or nearly forever)!

  • Tea towels are not designed for wiping your hands.  You need a hand towel for that, a robust one that can be washed frequently, and at high temperatures.  There is a danger that, when a tea towel is used for wiping hands, they might also be used for wiping the dirt off, as well as for drying your hands.  The dirt stains tea towels e.g. if you have been peeling or cleaning potatoes your hands might be muddy; if, however, you have been preparing beetroot that is certainly a different level of stain!!  I have three sorts of ‘tea towel’ that I reserve for hand drying, and keep separately: two black ones, a Madeira honeycomb cotton and a New York thick cotton plus a gaudy, towelling one from Fuerteventura.  All three can be washed at high temperatures if necessary but because of their design they do not retain any signs of permanent stain
  • Tea towels should not be used for wiping down work surfaces.  JCloths, paper towels and sponges are designed for this purpose.  Once you start wiping a surface not only are the chances of a tea towel being stained increased but there is a danger of spreading germs.  It is not always possible to see the germs you might be spreading; disposable cloths are appropriate. You don’t want to have to throw away a tea towel costing £13 if it has been used to wipe down a surface where beetroot, jam, stewed fruit etc has been; there is bound to be stains, stains that are just not possible to remove
  • Tea towels should never be placed in a laundry basket damp.  This can cause mildew, spread germs and the stains from mildew are difficult to eradicate; you get tiny black spots and they can also smell mouldy.
  • Obviously, the best way of caring for your tea towel is not to use it at all (not something I recommend).  Nicky’s Aunt’s tea towel is from 1976 (41 years old). Pristine.  Immaculate.  Full of bright colours.  The answer? She didn’t use it, or any of the other 16 that I inherited.  This means you are using a tea towel as a decorative feature, rather than as a useful object.  The colours are amazing considering their age.
  • Never boil a tea towel; it can seem like the obvious thing to do but tea towels aren’t meant for boiling, or for being washed at very high temperatures.  The following two tea towels are a good example.  The one from Wells Cathedral has been washed correctly.  Bought in 1995, it has retained its colours perfectly.  However, the one from Traquir House, only a few years earlier , was boiled on a couple of occasions because there were stains and it has suffered from the effects of this.
  • However, the practical method is to look at the washing instructions.  If we buy a cashmere jumper or a silk shirt, we will always look at the washing instructions: maximum temperature for water, whether it can be machine washed or if hand washing is necessary, whether it can be dried in a tumble-dryer, how it should, or should not, be ironed.  There seems to be an assumption that putting a tea towel in a hot wash is fine.  The washing instructions may be on a label or actually printed on the tea towel; always follow the instructions.  Never assume that because one tea towel says that you can wash it at 60 degrees, the same will apply to all tea towels.
  • Tea towels are made from a wide variety of materials: from linen to linen mix, from unbleached cotton to bleached cotton, from 100% cotton to 50%linen, 50% cotton.  They all require different methods.  Some you can tumble dry, some you can’t; some you can iron, some you can’t.
  • Never follow Dorothy’s example of putting a plastic hook in the material.  One rough wash with heavier articles, like a towel, and the plastic could rip a hole in the material.

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  • Be careful what items you put in a wash with a tea towel.  All items should be of a similar weight.  The reality is that a tea towel is a small and light-weight item; a heavier weight can entangle itself in the tea towel.  My Tattershall Castle one got caught up with a bath towel several years ago and one small rip has meant the edges continue to fray every time that it is washed.

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  • Don’t use biological washing powder on tea towels because it will mean the colours will fade more quickly.  All those handy internet sites suggest biological washing powder to prevent the spread of germs.  We come back to the best way of looking after your tea towel is to use it for the correct use, no wiping down work surfaces.
  • Tea towels should be ironed slightly damp so that they can be stretched back into the correct shape.  You can see some of my tea towels have a slightly weird look.  The one from Aberglasney Gardens wasn’t ironed damp, in fact it was much too dry and therefore the shape could not be restored.  I will have to wait until the next wash

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  • I have recently found that the best way for tea towels to retain their shape is to hang them, rather than fold them.  I recognise that this could be considered a waste of space in ordinary households.  However, before I discovered the trouser-hanger method of storage I did find that the least folds the better; if you can lay a tea towel fully flat, rather than folded, there are less places for additional signs of wear. A long shallow shelf can be effectively used rather than full shelves in an airing cupboard or drawer.
  • Relegate old tea towels to the duster cupboard so that you have a source of cloths to grab in the event of an accident or greasy wiping up.  That way you will not be tempted to grab a newer tea towel that has many years left in it.  Thus, you will conserve the lives of newer tea towels, by making sure than you don’t use them for incorrect usages.
  • When Jean moved into a care home, she passed her tea towels to me.  Jean was a ‘bleach it within an inch if its life’ sort of a woman (and if you can’t bleach it, boil it!).  She has many tea towels which I would not want to get rid of but they do show the signs of misuse!  The one on the right, in its former days of glory, had a row of different blue teapots, the one on the left was once a vibrant reminder of her trip to Cambridge where the colours were deep claret and black and the one in the middle was a souvenir from Inverewe gardens which once had a picture of the gardens in the left hand corner.  The Cambridge one is linen and boiling has certainly caused fraying round the edges.  The other two are honey-comb cotton and have definitely lost their shape.
  • These days dishwashers mean less ‘ordinary’ washing and wiping up.  The only things left to be washed by hand are those heavy duty dishes, roasting tins etc.  Make sure you don’t use an ordinary tea towel to wipe them up; it is very difficult to remove all the grease and stains from roasting pans so inevitably the tea towel will be stained.  Find an alternative – kitchen roll, relegated tea towels, JCloths etc.  My Edinburgh Festival tea towel from 1976 shows the damage that it can cause.
  • My worst fear is getting a tea stain on a tea towel; I can never get rid of them.  As someone who drinks a lot of tea this is a problem.  Any handy hints always welcome and will be added to the blog.

The fact is, that once you have stained a tea towel, you can try biological washing powders, boiling, stain remover or fancy tricks with vinegar; all these methods will have an effect on the quality, and longevity, of your tea towel and may never remove the stain.  At the end of the day, tea towels are a usable, useful item; stains are part of the memories associated with them and as long as they are clean, they should be fine.  After all, ‘stain’ isn’t the same as ‘dirt’!!