A few weeks into the tea towel blog and I’m already thinking about tea towels in a new way.
My tea towel collection has been lovingly gathered over a period of more than 40 years. There are three distinct ways in which I have acquired them:
- I started by buying them when I visited places in order to use them. As I use them, I remember the place, the time, the event, who I was with and the memories come flooding back. Personally, I never buy tea towels of places that I haven’t visited. There is always a temptation, when I visit National Trust shops, to buy an attractive tea towel depicting a property that. I haven’t visited. No! I tell myself, visit the property first. It is an incentive to go to new places.
- Some tea towels are presents from friends, family and colleagues (and more recently strangers) – birthday presents, gifts from a holiday they have been on; a few are creative pieces of art work they think I will enjoy. The memories are about the circumstances in which I was given the tea towel, the people involved……
- Lastly, I have ‘inherited’ some; I have all my mother’s tea towels (not that she had many and I bought most of them so they are in good taste!!). A bit of an heirloom. I also have David Allen’s aunts tea towels. Who is David Allan? He was a Trustee of an organisation I worked for. He knew I had this quirky liking for tea towels, so when his aunt died he gave me hers. I didn’t know her but she did live in Aberdeen where I have family. I thought it was a lovely gesture. David Allan died about four years ago and when I use his aunt’s tea towels, I remember him and the carrier bags he used to carry around, full of newspaper cuttings.
What I have never done is just buy a tea towel off the internet. I need to have a ‘connection’ with it. Since I have started this blog I’ve had tweets from so many different people about sites where tea towels are on sale. There are some really amazing ones: I love the work of the Radical Tea Towel Company; however, I had already been given one of theirs as a present a couple of years ago – Votes for Women. I am now in the process of cutting up my credit cards in order to avoid buying more tea towels, otherwise I will be bankrupt!!! This is a real test of living by the principles of my tea towel collection.
On the other hand, while I will hold true to the reasons why I collect tea towels, maybe I need to think about the whole concept of tea towels and their changing role in society.
Look up a history of tea towels on the Internet, (it’s not something Amazon sell books on), and there are a number of sites that come up with the same story: tea towels were introduced into 18th Century England, made of a special lint-free linen, to dry fine bone china and crystal. Lint-free linen didn’t scratch the China and glass. It was a middle class practice where the’mistress of the household’, as opposed to the servants, dried the China and glass because servants were considered too clumsy. It was the role of servants to embroider the tea towels, which were often regarded as heirlooms (bit like my mother’s tea towels but more elaborate). As a matter of interest, why are they called tea towels? No one really knows, but a possibility is because they had a secondary function of wrapping around a tea pot to keep the tea warm.
Since the late 19th Century, tea towels have been massed produced and made of a lot of different fabrics, some more absorbent than others: pure linen, linen-mix, terry towelling, cotton and more recently fabrics that will take photos being reproduced on them.
With the introduction of the dishwasher, I have often been asked whether I thought the tea towel would become obsolete. I can’t think of a world without tea towels, especially since I don’t have a dishwasher. If there are people asking such questions, I might say that I would have thought it would be a bad business idea to set up a company selling only tea towels. Clearly, my experience over the last few weeks tells me I was wrong. Not only are companies selling tea towels on line, some sell only tea towels. In addition, you can have a one-off tea towel made with a photograph transfer; you can design your own fundraising tea towel, as many primary schools do now with handprints of all the children; fabric pens allow you to create designs that will stand the test of many washes. So maybe I have to see tea towels in a different light, a 21st Century feature that has many more functions than just drying dishes.
Click below to return to the Virtual Tea Towel Museum