Who or what is the hero in your kitchen? The dishwasher that quietly revitalises crockery, the eco-efficient induction cooktop, Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan's First Nations Food Companion, or the kids that clean up without complaining? For me, it's none of these – though I did appreciate the kids when they were around. Rather, it's the tea towel, or more specifically the linen tea towel. Australian-made linen tea towels are the unsung heroes of my kitchen!
Many years ago, the Australian tea towel (then called a kitchen towel) was treasured for its ability to dry delicate china and glassware without leaving any lint or streaks. Over time, because they were used for polishing the tea service, they became known as tea towels and earned their place in everyone's kitchen.
And because they are a handy size and shape, they soon took on a life of their own as an essential part of Australian culture, with unique designs and patterns reflecting the country's rich history, from the Big Things to iconic First Nations designs, tea towels are now part of our heritage.
Truly, tea towels are versatile assistants in the kitchen. Beyond their traditional role of drying dishes, these versatile gems have much more to offer. So, let's delve into the world of Australian tea towels, and explore the various ways in which they can be used. Here are a few kitchen suggestions beyond drying dishes:
- Place a cotton or linen tea towel in a bread basket to keep freshly baked bread warm. The breathable fabric helps maintain the right level of moisture without steaming the bread.
- If your sage, thyme, and saltbush are abundant, pick them and lay the herbs on a tea towel to air-dry. The breathable fabric allows for proper ventilation while keeping your herbs in one place. Once dried, bundle the tea towel and herbs together for easy storage.
And if the tea towels no longer suit your kitchen, try repurposing them into an apron or accessory. Magazines from the 1920s and 1930s had lots of ideas along these lines – from a easy way to make an apron: "gather the long edge and add a band with ties", to instructions on how to make a top with two (new) tea towels and a couple of hair clips. I'll pass on that one. Anyway, it's clear that Australian tea towels with a touch of colour can be put to many different uses.
>> Explore our range of tea towels
Novel ways to use a tea towel
Australian tea towels are practical and aesthetically pleasing. Their vibrant designs and colours can instantly brighten up any space. As well as being handy table runners or wall hangings, tea towels can be repurposed as cushion covers or placemats, adding a bold touch to your home.
- Use them to decorate your food preparation spaces. Unlike prints or paintings, linen or cotton tea towels are great as wall art because you don't have to worry about the surface being damaged by a steamy atmosphere. Tea towels that feature native birds are well suited to this use. Alternatively, you can hang them over the oven handle, drape them over the backs of chairs, or display them on hooks to add a temporary pop of colour and style to your kitchen decor.
- Transform the practical tea towel into a decorative linen accent by using a white tea towel as a table runner or even a (very small) makeshift tablecloth. Fold one in half to make a reversible placemat; they're the ideal size for this. The vibrant Australian fabric designs of locally made tea towels can instantly add a touch of style to any dining or kitchen space.
- Elevate your picnic game by packing a couple of colourful tea towels. Lay them out as impromptu picnic blankets or tablecloths, a clean surface to sit on, or even stylish wraps for your sandwiches and snacks. Similarly, pack a lightweight tea towel when travelling. It can be used as a quick drying towel and a cover for public seats. And if you don't mind sharing, they work well as makeshift napkins.
- Is it serendipitous that the standard tea towel is the same size as the average cushion cover? If you're expecting guests and don't have time to decorate, repurpose your favourite tea towels and wrap them around the cushions. Just hope that there's no vigorous activity on the couch that might expose your efforts.
>> Explore our range of tea towels
By embracing these alternative uses, gorgeous tea towels become more than just practical kitchen items – they become versatile and stylish additions to daily life. And they can be the perfect gift if you choose designs and styles that resonate with the recipient's style and preferences. Read on to hear more about the gift option.
Linen or cotton – the perennial question
Choosing between linen and cotton tea towels involves practical and aesthetic factors. Linen tea towels are known for their durability, absorbency, and lint-free nature. Linen fibres are stronger than cotton, making them more resistant to wear and tear over time. Additionally, linen has natural antibacterial properties, which can be appealing in a kitchen setting. On the other hand, cotton tea towels are softer and can be more affordable. While both are a sustainable option, cotton towels are also favoured for their comfort and ease of care, as this material tends to be more forgiving when it comes to washing and ironing.
Make a choice based on your priorities. If durability, antibacterial properties, or wow factor are key, linen may be more appropriate. If softness and budget are more important, then go for cotton as your first choice. And of course, there's always a cotton and linen blend for the best of both worlds.
Tea towels as gifts and souvenirs
Australian tea towels make unique and practical gifts or souvenirs. Their distinctive designs mean they are a thoughtful present for friends and family, especially those who appreciate local culture and art.
Australian artists and designers often have their own tea towels printed or collaborate with local manufacturers to create limited edition collections, making the tea towel a work of art in its own right. By giving a tea towel, you not only share a piece of Australian culture but also support local artisans and their craft.
Whether it's a housewarming present, a "just because" gesture, or a memento of your travels, tea towels are sure to be well-received.
Finally, consider embracing eco-friendly gift giving by using tea towels as an alternative to traditional gift wrap. Wrap small presents or a bottle of wine in a beautifully designed tea towel, securing it with a ribbon or twine. Not only does this reduce waste, but it adds an extra layer of thoughtfulness to the gift.
Image: A bottle of Australian wine wrapped in a tea towel illustrated by John Klein.
Let's all embrace Australian tea towels
In conclusion, take a moment to appreciate the history and cultural significance of tea towels in Australia, and embrace their hidden potential. Whether you're hosting a dinner party, looking for a unique gift, or simply wanting to add an individual touch to your space, Australian cotton or linen tea towels are the perfect choice. Let them bring vibrancy and versatility to your home by celebrating Australia's iconic flora and fauna and other aspects of the local culture.
>> Explore our range of tea towels
Research and ideas by Anne-Marie Yee. And my personal thoughts on tea towels – my preference is linen because I love its durability and the way it feels. I still have linen tea towels that were bought more than twenty years ago which is a pretty good investment :-). However, they can take a bit of time to wear in (i.e., stop feeling as stiff as a board) and cotton tea towels don't suffer from that.
Top Image: Linen tea towel hand printed in Tasmania.