You have undoubtedly used one to dry your dishes, and did you know that it has its roots in the great, British tea tradition? In England in the eighteenth century, the tea tradition was in its infancy. Along with the budding tradition of afternoon tea came all of the paraphernalia and accoutrements of the tea service.
In upper class homes the tea service was very likely an expensive set of the most delicate bone china, or it may even be an ornately crafted silver tea service. The common household servant was not to be trusted with the delicate duty of drying these precious tea trappings, and so this duty fell to the mistress of the house.
Of course to perform her duties she would require a special, drying cloth made from the finest linen. While the housemaids were responsible for hand sewing the woven linen into the first tea towels, they were not allowed to actually use the towels on the fine china. Tea towels were traditionally made of linen, because the linen fibers come from flax or linseed plants. These plants are very absorbent; thus using linen for a tea towel made a functional, absorbent and lint free towel for the mistress’ delicate task of drying the tea service.
During this time the mistress of the house may very well embellish her tea towels for decorative use such as covering food during tea. Tea towels have been adorned with various and sundry themes and scenes over the years, and they began being mass-produced during the industrial revolution.
In today’s world, tea towel and dish towel are used synonymously, and they are made from fabrics that are soft and absorbent like the traditional linen fabric as well as cotton, terrycloth and microfiber.