What Are Tea Towels, and How Can You Use Them?

Stack of blue and white tea towels next to bowl of blackberries on white background

Karen Brodie/ Moment Open/ Getty Images

Walk into a gift shop anywhere from New York City's Times Square to Seattle, Washington, and you'll find plenty of tea towels printed with images and witty sayings. They make a perfect souvenir because they are easy to pack for friends. Luckily, they are also a practical gift.

What a Tea Towel Is

The term tea towels came into fashion during the 18th century when the lady of the house would use the towels, often made from finely woven linen fibers, while serving tea to catch the occasional drip. She would also use them to carefully dry her finest china to prevent scratches.

Today's tea towels are usually made of cotton. The term tea towel is used for any flat-weave dish towel (never terry cloth like a bath towel) approximately 16″ x 28″ to 18″ x 30″ in size. They are readily available from online merchants, home goods stores, and gift shops. While they are still used for drying dishes in the kitchen and catching drips at tea time, here are 13 ways you can incorporate tea towels into your decorating and routine housekeeping.

Smart Uses for Tea Towels

  • 01 of 13

    Create Cafe Curtains

    Tea towels come in a wide range of patterns, from vintage prints to modern graphics, and are ideal for inexpensive cafe curtains. Use a spring-tension rod and clip-on rings to create curtains in just a few minutes. Once you tire of the look, take off the rings and put the towels back to work in the kitchen.

  • 02 of 13

    Reduce Your Dependence on Paper Towels

    A stack of tea towels can greatly reduce your dependence on paper towels and the amount of solid waste in your home. You probably do laundry every few days anyway—the towels can be tossed in the washer with other linens and used over and over again. Once you get in the habit of using tea towels for the below uses (to name a few), you will rarely reach for a paper towel.

    • Loosely wrap freshly washed salad and cooking greens in a tea towel to absorb excess moisture.
    • Line refrigerator drawers with a clean tea towel to catch drips or moisture. Replace with a clean towel each week.
    • Place a fresh tea towel on the counter at the beginning of each meal preparation for wiping hands and sweeping away crumbs.
  • 03 of 13

    Protect Kitchen Equipment

    While tea towels are great for drying dishes, they can also protect them from scratches. Fold the towels to fit between stacked plates and pots and pans to prevent scratches. Use tea towels to line storage areas to help prevent chipping or scratches from wooden or wire shelves. And, if you are moving or packing up breakable items, tea towels are perfect padding.

  • 04 of 13

    Improve Your Cooking Skills

    Tea towels can do more in the kitchen than clean up. They can enhance your cooking results, too.

    • Dip a tea towel in hot water and wring until nearly dry to cover dough while it rises. The heat will help activate the yeast more quickly.
    • Place a tea towel between the rim of a slow cooker and the lid to absorb condensation and prevent drips.
    • Use a tea towel to strain yogurts, cheeses, and stocks. The tight weave will do a great job.
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  • 05 of 13

    Dress a Dining Room Table

    Tea towels are the perfect size for a placemat. Mix and match colors and designs for a fun table. Use them as generously sized napkins, as well.

  • 06 of 13

    Show Your Artistic Side

    Solid-colored tea towels are the perfect base fabric for needlework. Add embroidery, cross-stitch, or embellishments for a one-of-a-kind look. (Every grandmother would love a tea towel that a child paints with their handprint or artistic flair.) Remember to use fabric paint or markers that will withstand many washes.

  • 07 of 13

    Be Prepared on the Go

    Keep a stash of tea towels in the car to use as a napkin (or bib) when you must eat on the run. They are also handy if you need something clean and dry to sit on at a park or soccer field.

  • 08 of 13

    Make Some Pillows

    With just a needle and thread, you can turn two tea towels into a great throw pillow. Sew the edges together, leaving a small opening. Stuff with polyester fiberfill and sew the opening closed. The pillow can be used on a chair, sofa, or bed—and it's washable!

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  • 09 of 13

    Wrap Gifts

    No need to hunt for wrapping paper or a gift bag, just use a tea towel to wrap gifts. A great pairing for gifted soaps, kitchen tools, or a bottle of wine, the towel becomes part of the present.

  • 10 of 13

    Accessorize Your Little One

    Tea towels can be used for a burp cloth, bib, or even a diaper! The tightly woven fabric is very absorbent, easy to clean, and the natural fibers are gentle on a baby's skin.

  • 11 of 13

    Define a Work Area

    If you are working on a small home repair project, use a tea towel to define your work area so that small screws and pieces don't become lost. A tea-towel base is also great for craft projects such as beading because they help hold everything in place.

  • 12 of 13

    Never Toss a Stained Tea Towel

    Eventually, tea towels will become stained and you may not want to use them in the kitchen. But never toss them! Old tea towels work great as:

    • Dust cloths
    • Spill absorbers on the floor
    • Spot cleaners for carpet stains
    • Window and mirror shiners
    • Shoeshine cloths
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  • 13 of 13

    Wrap a Loaf of Bread

    To complete this baker's dozen of uses, a tea towel is perfect for wrapping a homemade (or bakery-bought) loaf of bread for gift-giving. The recipient can then use the towel in a bread basket to help keep your delicious bread warm when serving. The natural cotton or linen fibers help absorb moisture from the warm bread and prevent it from becoming soggy.