What is a Tea Towel?

What is a tea towel? The answer is a little more versatile and intriguing than you might think, with many ways to decorate and clean up with these little linen towels.

A young woman is drying the dishes using a tea towel - What is a tea towel
You can also use tea towels in drying your dishes

Somehow, of all the things we use to prepare tea, no one thinks to bring tea towels into the equation. After all, they can be just as fun and versatile as our favorite tea sets and flavors.

Surprisingly, a tea towel is not just a towel used for tea. You can use a tea towel to dry dishes or even kitchen counters. Such towels usually come from lint-free linen to keep plates and cutlery clean. However, tea towels meant specifically for tea will come from cotton instead of linen. In which case, you probably will not use the towel to wipe many surfaces.

In some cases, you might place a tea towel under your teacup or mug in place of a saucer. A tea towel can clean up the mess just fine if you spill a little. 

History of the Tea Towel

Tea towels came into prominence in eighteenth-century England, but they took off when teatime was an important social event that required excellent decorum in the nineteenth century.

Embroidedered tea towels were introduced during 19th century to entertain guests

Eighteenth-century ladies embroidered tea towels with unique designs for serving tea and then pass on to their families. Servants would usually serve tea to household guests.

In the nineteenth century, serving tea became a priority for the lady-of-the-house, who would use her first-class china and towels to entertain guests. The towels were vital for making the china even more presentable and protecting it while the lady handled it. They were not often as personalized to better match the tea sets.

How to Use a Tea Towel

You can drape a tea towel over your teapot to keep it warm or use the corner of the towel to catch any drips from the spout. You could also use a smaller tea towel to protect your hand from the teapot while you serve.

Tea towels also work great as decorative pieces for your kitchen or bathroom. You can find towels that match your tea set, or you can embroider or decorate them any way you like.

tea towels on a wooden frame
Tea towels as a decorative piece

Tea towels are an adorable and effective tool for keeping baked goods warm. Similarly, a tea towel should work fine if you need to cover a bowl of rising dough.

Differences Between a Dish Towel and a Tea Towel

The way we have described tea towels, it almost sounds like they are interchangeable with dish towels. However, the name of the towel comes down to its material of origin.

Dish towels come from terry cloth – a fabric specifically meant to absorb liquids. Usually, a tea towel will help protect your hand from heat or keep the teapot warm since tea towels come from cotton.

Linen is also considerably thinner than cotton or terry cloth. You could probably use a tea towel as a hand towel, but it will not be as absorbent. A tea towel should suffice if you need to wipe off a little liquid. Otherwise, you might be better off with a real dishcloth made from terry cloth. 

What to Clean With a Tea Towel

You do not have to use tea towels exclusively for tea sets. Its lint-free fabric makes it a top choice for window cleaning

You can also save energy in your home by wrapping a tea towel around a food container instead of using a paper towel. Note that you can place your tea towel in the oven, but only at a low temperature and at short intervals.

What is a Tea Towel FAQs

Here are a few questions you might still have about using a tea towel.

What Can I Substitute For A Tea Towel?

If you need a tea towel substitute, you can use any cotton fabric on hand, like a cotton napkin, cloth diaper, bandana, or pillowcase.

How Do You Hang Tea Towels On An Oven Door?

One place to store your tea towels is over your oven door handle. People often fold their tea towels in half hot-dog style, then thread the towel over the oven handle until they hand evenly over the handle.

Some people create special fasteners to keep the tea towels from slipping over the handle. For example, you can close the clasp using snaps, buttons, or simple ties.

If you liked this article check out Milk Tea Equipment.


  • Aisling O'Connor

    Aisling is an Irish food and drinks writer and journalist fueled by coffee and herbal tea. She followed up her journalism degree with nutrition studies. Find Aisling on LinkedIn.