We had a tempest-y day last week in the Carolinas and I am here to tell you no one would choose a windy storm over a lovely, brightly printed and pretty bit of linen or cotton. No one. Except a storm chaser might, but those people--while interesting--are probably totally nuts and consequently not great candidates for tea towel collections. You and I are inherently sane(ish) and therefore we love tea towels! They are the best. (So are storm chasers, really. I love to sit on my couch and live vicariously through their adrenaline filled journeys deep in to the heart of dangerous and uncomfortable storms. Tea towels for them too! Perfect for futile moppings of camera lenses in the face of driving horizontal rain.)
Anywho, according to an article entitled "A Brief History of Tea Towels" on the Weaving Today website, tea towels originated in 18th century England. Made from lint-free linen, they were used to dry fine china and other delicate household treasures. Another possible employment was to insulate the tea pot or cover a tray of delicious baked goods prior to serving. Early tea towels featured embroidery, often done by the ladies of the house as hand stitching was considered a suitable past time for upper class women at this time. The common custom of embroidering tea towels continued right up through the middle of the last century as we see in this example circa 1950s or 1960s:
Embroidered tea towels are still fun to make and great to give as gifts. I stitched up a pile a few years ago to give as favors for a kitchen shower I was hosting for a friend. I used these patterns from Sublime Stitching but there are lots of great options out there including vintage patterns like the one above. My lovely friend Liz sells great embroidery patterns including this one that looks charming on a tea towel. I love the combination of fun to make, attractive and useful, don't you?
The earliest example of printed tea towels that I can find reference to is the use of patterned feedsack cloth. This early example of repurposing or upcycling ( which, by the way, our ancestors did not need a special term for as they just called it "using") gained popularity throughout the early part of the twentieth century. The towels, made from the printed but rough material used to transport goods such as flour and grains, were suited to their purpose and attractive. Though sturdy, they were hard used and many haven't survived to resurface on the vintage marketplace. A lot of the items I see offered for resale that are marked "feedsack" are either reproductions or are referencing a type of rough cotton fabric that is similar in texture to feedsack fabric.
After the end of WWII, traveling as a tourist began to become popular and with tourists around we always find souvenirs! Souvenirs are a topic we may discuss quite a bit here on wonderland5 as they often become personalized objects that help us to tell the story of ourselves to those around us. They also help to remind us of the stories we are telling ourselves every day--what could be better than thinking of your trip to York last year while you are cleaning up the kitchen today? Tea towels printed with maps were especially popular in England and the UK but were also found in Europe and across the US. A fascinating fact that I learned while researching this post is that while the concept of maps on fabric was not new, it was employed very creatively during WWII. A blog post on welike2cook.com states that British airmen carried a map printed on silk in their survival kit as silk is more durable under stressful conditions than paper and also more easily concealed. How cool, right? I would love to see one of those in person (here's some on ebay).
During the eras of the 1950s through the early 1980s, another very popular category for the printed tea towel was the calendar towel. Many of these are currently on the resale market as they may not have been used at all or used primarily as a wall hanging decorative calendar. I currently have this lovely example hanging on my kitchen wall.
There seems to be a market for bringing this type of item back as I have been seeing artist produced calendar tea towels showing up around Christmas time in the last few years. I received the towel below last year from my sister, with whom I share a love of all things Vera Neumann.
Vintage printed tea towels can often be found priced at $10 (US) and under. They are an affordable, fun and easily stored collection. Modern printed tea towels come in at a slightly higher price point, costing approximately $15-30 (US), with the limited edition artist tea towels sometimes costing more. They still seem to be most popular in the UK. Ulster Weavers is a textile company in Ireland that has been in business since 1870. Their website shows the royal seal that states that they are kitchen textile suppliers by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen. I like to imagine that this contemporary towel from Ulster Weavers that I recently sold on ebay is similar to one Queen Elizabeth uses to dry her tea cups.
Ulster Weavers excels in graphic design for the tea towel and from the looks of my recent pinterest searches, it has done so for quite some time. I guess a tea towel is like a poster that you can use, or display, or fold up and put in a drawer for another time. This, to me, hits the high notes of a good collectible. I will be keeping my eyes peeled for more vintage graphic tea towels and I hope you will as well. Because if I haven't convinced you to hoard more objects than I am not doing my job properly. (This is *not true*--for if you are hoarding all the objects that lessens the chances that I will get to hoard them for a while.)