Pat Albeck: Queen of the Tea Towel


Liz bought me this book, as a surprise.  You know that feeling, when the Amazon envelope, addressed to yourself, arrives through the door but you can’t remember if you have ordered anything?  To open that cardboard package and find a glorious yellow book is something to make your heart beat faster, especially when you had no idea that it was arriving.  I flicked through it, looking at the different illustrations.  I put it down.  I watched a football match.  I picked it up again and read it from cover to cover.  I had some dinner.  I picked it up again and read it from cover to cover, once more.  I looked more carefully at the designs and, at that point, realised how few I actually had.  If the shops hadn’t closed by this time, I would have been out, scouring the charity shops, looking for all those Pat Albeck designs I had missed.

It is a rare thing that I will write a Tea Towel Blog that is not about a tea towel, with a special memory, from a particular place.  There have been celebratory Blogs about the first and second birthdays of, one on preparing for the Virtual Tea Towel Museum.  This Blog is very special to me; it is about the book Matthew Rice, Pat Albeck’s son, wrote about his late mother’s tea towel designs, published by the National Trust.  It’s the book I would have loved to have written.

For a Tea Towel Collector like myself, whose favourite tea towel designer was Pat Albeck, this is like a dream come true.  112 pages of joy, with full page photographs of some of her tea towels.  The book is divided into chapters: Cottages Castles and Country Houses, Kitchens and Food, Patterns and Graphics, Birds and Beasts, and Flowers Gardens and Landscapes.  Obviously, since she designed more than 300 tea towels, not all are included; just a sample.  Sad, obsessed collector am I, I just had to go through the book and count how many different tea towels are represented: 81 in total.  She designed a Calendar tea towel, for the National Trust, every year from 1976 to 2019, both of those are included.  That is 43 in total and I only own 5 (1986, 2005, 2009, 2014 and 2018); I have so many more to collect.  She designed tea towels for particular properties, both in England and Scotland, more general ones reflecting her love of gardening, cats; I have so few of her generalist designs and I want some!

The book shows her first tea towel design from 1954.  I think I was surprised at how few of the tea towels, that are in the book, I have got.  In fact, only Baddesley Clinton, Hardwick Hall and Mecanopsis.  I’d hoped that the tea towel that I was given in 1976 then lost, highly decorated with acorns and oak leaves from the National Trust, might be there, but no.  That has to be for a second volume!

There are some stunning ones included: A Present from the National Trust, a jug with a bunch of flowers; the Orange Tree, highly decorated and coloured with ‘Glass Cloth’ written on it; a Recipe for Seville Orange Marmalade and an absolutely plain Glass Cloth but with striking colours of French navy, black and milk chocolate.  I’ve never seen these ‘in the flesh’ but they are so beautiful.  Looking through the book, I realise how accurate that title is; Pat Albeck was the Queen of the Tea Towel.  It is fascinating to see the way her style, and use of colours, changed over the decades, yet they are all beautiful.

But I can’t complete this Blog without including a few of my Pat Albeck tea towels that I feel are deserving of a second volume.  Just tap on the picture for the notes:

I love the colour that Pat Albeck uses in her tea towels to make them come alive:

Thank you, Liz, for buying me this book; I think you described it as “an early birthday present’.  For me it is like birthday, Christmas and any other celebration all rolled into one.  Thank you to Matthew Rice for such a delightful book, giving readers some insight into the background behind some of the designs.

I have two regrets, and this book has highlighted this for me: firstly, I never met Pat Albeck, or interviewed her for the Museum, and secondly, I never saw one of the exhibitions of her work.  One of the things that I have learned over the years is that if you want to do something, get on and do it; you never know what is round the corner.



Our Solar System (or reaching for the stars): 2018


Class Fundraising do some great tea towels, which are used for educational purposes: both content of the design and teaching kids to wipe up with good quality tea towels!  This Solar System tea towel has taught me a thing or two; I’m certainly more prepared for a Pub Quiz in terms of which planets are nearer to, or further from, earth.

But I have just finished watching the World Cup ‘play-off’ between England and Belgium and, for me, this World Cup was about reaching for the stars.  There wasn’t unrealistic expectations from a very young team; it certainly wasn’t painful to watch each of England’s matches; I didn’t feel the need to scream at the television or feel frustrated that each and every player wasn’t trying hard enough; we even won a penalty shoot-out.

Gareth Southgate felt, at the beginning, that reaching the last 16 would be a huge success, and it was.  The trouble is once you have achieved that, you do try and reach for the stars, go that one or two steps beyond what what expected, to dream that ‘football’s coming home’.  The reality is that football has come home, in that loads of disillusioned fans, people who have thoroughly enjoyed the game for many years, have been reinspired.  The tale of the careers of players like Jason Pickford who have been ‘on loan’ to various clubs and has played some of the games of his life is a wake-up call.  It has made commentators and pundits ask “ where are the new young players going to come from”.  You only reach the standard of being able to play in the World Cup, represent your country if you are in a first team week after week, not sitting on the Subs Bench because highly expensive players from other countries will take your place.

We can be highly successful in under-17s and under-20s competitions but what happens to those players as they grow older.  Are they nurtured by the Premiership League Clubs? No they are ‘on loan’.  So when I say ‘football is coming home’ I am just hoping that the ‘powers that be’ in football recognise the amazing talent of young British players and offer them the experience to be able to represent their country, whether that is England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.  The public isn’t going to want to be cheated.  But then Gareth Southgate knows that and knows that he doesn’t just have to look at the Manchester City and Manchester United axis for players, there are great players everywhere.  There is no point in having Football Academies if you don’t nurture those players as they leave.  We can dream the dream and look to the stars: football is coming home.

I Came, I Saw, I Conquered: 2017


A great tea towel that I bought in Stratford-upon-Avon last summer.  Liz and I had met up with Jai, Roger, Hamish and Lyra for Afternoon Tea at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre.  ‘Twas a lovely day, sunny, trip across the river with Hamish turning the wheel, to move the Chain Ferry across the water; we looked out from the restaurant, high above the river, a great view.  And then there was a Craft Fair which is where I saw this tea towel.  This is not the first I’ve got by Erica Sturla, William Wallace and Marie Antoinette are the other two.  I love the play on words, the illustrations akin to Wallace and Gromit.  I like to be able to link history with a tea towel……..

And today’s blog does just that.  I bought this on an outing with Jai and yesterday I got a Whatsapp message from Jai:

”…a journalist has asked me to offer my ‘expert’ commentary on Boris Johnston’s resignation letter😆”

I reply “That’s what comes of being famous.  I’m sure you can blag your way through it”, not treating a distinguished academic with the respect she deserves.  “I can’t believe you are now a political commentator.   This is as good as getting an A in GCSE Geography (another surprise)”

I looked up the link she sent; this is not just one line quote but an exploration, at length, of the wording of Boris’s letter of resignation for ‘Bustle’, an online magazine. It never occurred to me that academics around the country would be looking at the intricacies of the letter; I thought they would just accept that this was his scheme to become Prime Minister.  I’m glad someone is looking at it in more detail, and it’s implications if he ever became Prime Minister.

Commenting on the fact that Boris addressed his letter to ‘Theresa’, Dr Jai Mackenzie, a fellow in English Language at the University of Birmingham told Bustle “In doing so he refuses to acknowledge her status and authority.  This practice of calling senior women by their first name (but senior men by their full names or titles) is a common complaint amongst women in the work place as it works to diminish women’s status and achievements”.

She went on to say “The contrast between the indecisive stance ascribed to May and Johnson’s own direct, confident style echoes the gendered stereotypes that men are more confident and aggressive than women, who are in contrast more timid and indecisive.  Perhaps he is trying to mobilise these stereotypes to his advantage, with the implication that May, as a woman, can never be as confident a leader as him”

“Congratulations you can certainly turn your hand to anything.  Just think, my Tea Towel Collection in the hands of a famous author and someone giving expert opinions in the newspaper.  TV next!!” I say

Eloquently Jai replies 😆

”50 million monthly subscribers seems to me to be a big audience!!”

Even more eloquently, she replies 🤷‍♀️

Boris may think “I came, I saw..” but maybe it is only the strap line that applies to him “I conquered the washing up” because there are many people who would be horrified if he became Prime Minister.

St Albans: 2005


It’s a drag not being able to drive.  I used to love it.  But going on long journeys means I have to use all manner of methods to keep myself awake, otherwise it isn’t fair on the driver.  Most of the time that isn’t difficult but sometimes, on the long and boring journey down the M1 to Hertfordshire, done at least weekly, this can be a struggle at times.  I’ve seen the scenery before, I’ve been in the traffic jams before, I’ve completed the ‘I Spy on the Motorway’ book twice, as well as ‘I Spy Cars’, ‘I Spy Lorries’ and parts of ‘I Spy Green’, ‘I Spy The Countryside’ and ‘I Spy the Weather’.  It’s always a shame that I can’t Blog in the car.  In the past, I used to write each Blog in draft, in the car, but since I have trained myself to write directly onto the iPad, I don’t even need to do that these days.

”How long has the M1 been open?” says Liz as we pass St Albans, very slowly in a long traffic jam; that’s what building a Smart Motorway means!

”Where does that train of thought come from?” I asked

“I couldn’t remember when it wasn’t here, so just wondered”

”I think it was 1959.  Ernest Marples opened it.  I’ve got a book called ‘Boring Postcards’ and there is a black and white one of the empty motorway and Ernest Marples with a ribbon to be cut”.

I’ve often wondered who bought those postcards but I suppose it must have been exciting at the time, not like today with a Smart Motorway chaos.

”You’re ‘rug washing’” Liz says knowingly.

‘Rug washing’ is an interesting phrase we use when someone is just guessing but sounding very convincing.  It originated from a sign on the side of the road in Glenfield: ‘Rug washing available’ with a picture of a horse but with no definable link.  When I first saw that sign, several years ago, I was bemused and asked Liz ”What’s rug washing?”

”It is a technique for washing horse blankets, using specialist soaps in a large machine.  It prevents disease and is good for the horses.”

”How do you know that?” I ask, impressed.

”I don’t.  I just made it up”.  Hence the birth of the term ‘rug washing’.

But I didn’t think I was rug washing about Ernest Marples.  The only answer is to Google it; that should keep me bright wide awake.  I was right.  The M1 was opened in 1959, Ernest Marples as Minister for Transport was there.  It started at Junction 7, to St Albans with the M10 spur, ending at Junction 17, with the A45 spur to Coventry.  Now Googling this was a mistake; I could tell you when every Junction was opened.  There are pages and pages on Google about the M1!   Interesting?  No, not exactly, but mesmerising and always useful for a Pub Quiz.  Did you know that lighting and safety barriers weren’t introduced until 1973 because of fears about safety?

“I’ve found a list of ‘Accidents and Incidents’ that have happened on the M1” I say

”I don’t want to know about those when I’m driving on the M1”

”What about the ‘List of Sites Visible from M1’?”


“Yes.  Do you know that you can see Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal at Buncefield from here?”

”Do I want to see that?”

”No.  But it is probably the most interesting thing to be seen.  I’m surprised at how few things are listed.”

This gets us both looking to see if you can see anything from the motorway and Google is right.  Basically there is very little to see. Well, my excavation into Google and the M1 certainly kept me awake, and Liz, bored maybe, but awake.

So, we passed St Albans, which I visited in 2005, and where I bought this tea towel.  St Albans was always a bit of a disappointment to me, so much history but never quite interesting enough.  Compared with St Albans, the story of the motorway was riveting!


Shapes: 2018


‘Shapes’ was a gift from Class Fundraising earlier this year.  It is one of their own design that they use alongside the delightful ones that schools have done of each child in a class; we all have one, I have a number.  This is an educational tea towel.  All shapes.  I look at the variety and remember learning about the ‘trapezium’ and now I think ‘what was a trapezium?’.  I needed to look the answer up on Google!  But the thing is that looking at the tea towel, all shapes deserve their place there, they are part of a mathematical conundrum.  If every shape was a square, it would not describe the shape of the moon or stars, it would not describe a road or a rugby ball or even a football.  All the shapes make up our universe, things that are there naturally, things we have created.

As I sat in the Symphony Hall in Birmingham last night, listening to the Birmingham Youth Proms, this tea towel sprung to mind.  As I looked round the Hall, packed with parents and children alike; children as young as eight and the more experienced in their late teens, what struck me was there wasn’t a stereotype of what makes a good young musician.  Children of all ages, nationalities, religions, ethnic origins; children not trying to be stars of the show, soloists, but willing to work hard as part of a large group, an orchestra, to create that ‘wall of sound’ that can send goose bumps down your spine.  Different genre of music from rock to standard classical, from the music of an orchestra to a group of three singers or even a much larger choir.  It is that difference, just like different shapes, that makes for magic, creativity and beauty, that difference that is essential to our country, our community.

I was stunned by the orchestral sound of a hundred violins and violas playing ‘Dancing Queen’; the dedication of teachers wanting to teach such a difficult instrument to nine year olds and instil that love of music, the creativity of musicians wanting to adapt a fun piece of music for what is usually a very serious instrument and the sheer pleasure of having the privilege to be invited to listen to it.

Lauren Zhang, BBC Young Musician of the Year performed, just after she had completed her GCSEs; the Dementia Choir performed, assembled only 6 weeks ago for anyone with any connection to dementia and Liz’s grandson Hamish performed as part of the Massed Violin and Viola Elective Group.  An eclectic group.  All shapes.

Number 26


If you’ve read ‘Tracks’ (dated 28 June 2018) you will know the story of my desire to just, at least once, push myself and create a bit of fiction for a tea towel.  It needed to be relating to a tea towel that I have no memories of.  I have chosen ‘Coffee’ which I inherited from my friend Jean in 2015, which has appeared in a Special Collection: Jean Mackenzie’s Tea Towels and ended up as part of an Afghan Hound.  This may not win the Booker Prize but I hope I have lived up to Cathy’s expectations of at least having tried,

Number 26

“Can John McCormack come to Customer Services please” the tannoy announced in a grumpy fashion.

“I bet someone has left their credit card in the machine.  Jack did it the other day; he was in such a panic”.  There was no sympathy, or understanding, in Mavis’s voice.

“You don’t think that’s John from number 26, do you?” asked Anne, as she scooped the chocolate sprinkles off the top of her cappuccino.  “They do a lovely cappuccino here” she added.

“No, it can’t be.  They shop at Lidl”

“How do you know that?  You said you’d never go to Lidl, too much foreign stuff and no time to pack your bag properly”

“I haven’t.  I just happened to see her putting a Lidl bag in the rubbish”

“What on earth were you doing looking at their rubbish?  You’ve been snooping again, haven’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  I was just out weeding the front when she came out.  I said ‘hello’ and noticed the bag”

“Only you would remember a piece of useless information like”

“Didn’t you read the article in the ‘Daily Mail’: ‘What your bins tell the criminals’. They can find out all sorts about you in your bin – your name and address, if you’ve bought something expensive……..”

“And if you shop in Lidl?”

“You’re not listening to me; I’m serious”

Anne had been here before with Mavis’s nosiness “so what does a Lidl bag mean? I bet you make sure everyone sees that you put your rubbish in a Waitrose bag”

“Stop changing the subject and anyway I don’t shop in Waitrose, it’s too expensive”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“Getting a free croissant with my cup of tea, if you have a Waitrose card.  You can get a bowl of soup at lunch time as well or even a nice piece of cake in the afternoon”

“Why have you got a Waitrose card if you don’t shop here?”

“Because you get a free croissant with your tea” Mavis was now becoming impatient.  “Oh no, it is him from number 26” she said in a hushed voice.

“Hello Mavis, hello Anne, nice to see you here.  Didn’t realise you shopped here.  I understand you wanted to see the Store Manager”

Mavis stuttered “Just wanted to say how much we enjoy shopping here, such good service, didn’t we Anne?”

“Thank you Ladies, anything else I can help you with?”

“No that’s all” Mavis said gingerly

“You know, if you are ever buying something heavy, just let me know and I can bring it home with me in the car, save you having to carry it”

“Oh thanks.  People are always willing to complain but never to praise, we just wanted to let the manager know, well, you, know”

John smiled and walked away to his next task

“Mavis, how could you?  You wanted to make a complaint about the coffee not being hot enough and not only that, you don’t shop here”

“I can’t have neighbours thinking I’m a trouble-maker.”

“So now why did she have a Lidl bag in her bin?”  Anne said smuggly, with a feeling of self-righteousness, adding  “I expect you’ll be shopping in Waitrose now”

Zacini: 2018, probably vintage


”How’s the house going?” Anne asks, as she pummels my right foot

”That hurts” I say

”Your pituary gland” she replies, no sympathy in her voice.  But then that is my experience of reflexologists, no empathy, never saying “oh I’ll stop”.  They just continue; it must work otherwise why would I pay for this punishment for eight years?

I don’t ask ”Is that important?“ wondering what on earth the pituitary gland does.  I don’t want to know; let her work on it.  Is her question about the house just something to take my mind off how sore my feet are?  It’s good tactics because that’s just what it does.

”Windows went in on Monday, they’re laying the patio today, new front door next Monday and kitchen on 16th so it’s getting exciting” I reply, adding “And the cupboard for the tea towels is being done on18th”

”I noticed something about tea towels on your email.  Do you collect them?”  That was the opener for my description at length, poor woman, about the tea towel collection and how I use them all.  By this time I’d forgotten about my pituitary gland, spine and everything else that is wrong with my body.

At the end of the session, having put my socks and shoes on, put my money on the table, got my phone calendar out to set another date and Anne had disappeared.  Maybe she was washing her hands.  Reflexologist always do this, otherwise their homes would be like a playgroup with greasy handprints everywhere.  I think she’s gone a long time.  Surely I didn’t miss her saying “Let yourself out” did I?

She returns clutching a pile of tea towels.  “I love a tea towel.  I’ve got quite a few but when we changed the kitchen I lost some because they didn’t fit into the kitchen drawers”.

”What’s this one?” I ask

”I don’t know. Probably from Greece or Turkey.  I don’t remember getting it”.  We both tried to decipher the language to see if it gave a clue; clearly ‘curry’ didn’t help.

”Would you like it for your collection?” she says.

I nearly said “Is the Pope Catholic?” but restrained myself and excitedly replied “Really? You sure?”

”Well, I really don’t have any recollection of getting it” then showed me tea towels from Scotland, presents from her mother, where there are stories attached.

”Thank you”. And stuffed it in my bag before she changed her mind.  Seriously, I don’t go for reflexology and expect to come away with a tea towel.

When I got home, I googled ‘zacini’ and found out it was Croatian for spices.  That made sense.  I immediately emailed her because I was sure that this information would jog her memory and offered to give it back, because it might have great memories attached to it.

“Ah, brill.  My daughter’s been to Croatia, but more recently so it’s not from her so keep it but thanks for letting me know”

Thank you, Anne.  I’ll write a blog today.