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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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 left, in its former days of glory, had a row of different blue teapots, the middle one was once a vibrant reminder of her trip to Cambridge where the colours were deep claret and black and the one on the right 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’!!