I am often asked how tea towels originated and in particular the practice of decorating them. The name Tea Towel originates from early nineteenh century England. Servants were notoriously careless when carrying expensive china and the lady of the house took to wrapping their fine china in a linen cloth to avoid breakages and using these "tea towels" to line tea trays to absorb spills.
Linen is soft, lint-free and highly absorbent, making it an ideal fabric for drying china after washing, without scratching the delicate designs. The plain linen cloths were then embroidered by Victorian ladies, making them the first examples of personalised tea towels.
Today, linen has largely been replaced by cotton due to cost and embrodery replaced by screen printing. Tea towels today, even taking into account the popularity of dishwashers, still feature in every kitchen as a functional product. Many however are bought for their attractive designs and are given as gifts or used to raise funds for charities and schools. They remain both functional and attractive, just as the linen cloths that our Victorian ancestors used all those years ago.