Kitchen Clothworks: Dish Towels

Kitchen dish towels are a must-have item and no wonder: dish towels can be put to use in a variety of ways. Kitchen dish towels are used to dry dishes and glasses. Kitchen dish towels are also used to dry and somewhat polish silver eating utensils, pots, and pans. And kitchen dish towels also serve as hand towels to dry-off washed, wet hands.

The most important feature of a kitchen dish towel is its ability to absorb moisture. Kitchen dish towels are made from cotton or linen. Hemp cloth is now coming into production and time will tell if hemp towels perform well.

There are several different types of cottons used to make dish towels, as well as a number of weaves. Most people use manufactured cotton dish towels or terrycloth cotton dish towels, but in our household we prefer linen dish towels.

Linen dish towels are far superior to cotton dish towels, providing good absorption without any lint on dishes, glassware, or eating utensils. And linen dish towels generally last 20 years or more, with average use.

Many of our dish towels are vintage linen towels that came to me from my grandmother. They served her kitchen for years, then came into service into my own kitchen. These dish towels have had decades of use and are still working well!

Linen is an organic fabric that is woven from flax, a fiber extracted from the plant Linum usitatisimum. Linen is a very strong fabric, stronger than cotton fabric, and the superior qualities of linen have withstood the tests of time. While new linen feels somewhat ‘crisp’ and wrinkles easily, linen is lustrous and lint-free, and linen becomes softer and more supple with wear and washings. Once the linen has been laundered several times, it becomes the best kitchen cloth available.

Linen towels are often decorated with embroidered stitches. I have always reserved my vintage-era linen embroidered towels for special moments such as an afternoon break with a cup of tea.

Since we don’t use paper towels in our kitchen, we keep a linen dish towel next to our sink. Each morning, a new linen dish towel is brought out from a drawer for the day’s use. This way we are able to dry our hands with a fresh linen towel daily and our need for paper towels is non-existent.

Cotton dish towels are also popular and during the vintage era, many cotton dish towels were made from flour and feed sacks. When the dry goods were sold in bulk, the cotton sacks were saved.  Thrifty housewives would recycle the cotton fabric into a variety of household uses, among them quilts and cotton dish towels.

Cotton feed and flour sack fabric is a rough, somewhat loose weave, but the cloth is very durable and has held up over the years.

During the vintage-era, other cotton dish towels were decorated with embroidery or cross-stitched designs. These cotton towels were made of a finer weave and higher quality of cotton.

Huck toweling, made from woven cotton, is a type of kitchen dish towel that was very popular beginning in the 19th century. The popularity of huck towels carried through to the 1950s.  The honeycomb weave that makes this type of toweling absorbent has been a foundation cloth for women to decorate. Swedish embroiderers may have been the first to weave cotton threads in and out of the huck toweling. The weaving process is performed by counting threads and the entire design technique is very easy. I learned to decorate kitchen dish towels from huck cloth when I was a pre-teen. This began my interest in kitchen clothworks. For more information and how-to basics on huck towels, refer to Huck Weaving, an excellent article with many illustrations and designs.

We use our kitchen dish towels all of the time. Another place that we use them is under our dish drying rack to absorb dripping water. Rather than using an unsightly plastic drain board that gets dirty and stained, a kitchen dish towel is used. As a drip-cloth, a kitchen dish towel can be used several times and is easily laundered. Replacing a used kitchen dish towel with a fresh one always keeps the dish washing/drying area clean.

Besides, who doesn’t love the excuse to bring bright and festive colors into a kitchen?

3 thoughts on “Kitchen Clothworks: Dish Towels

  1. Linen is lovely! I’ve some napkins i believe to be linen, plus the cotton ones. I’ve been picking up napkins wherever i find them – consignment & thrift stores usually – to replace the paper ones we used to use. (Funny story, sent my 20 YO recently married niece some lovely cloth napkins & place mats & she thanked me for the kitchen towels!)

    I have to admit that we still sometimes do use paper towels for the things i’m afraid might stain my cloth ones. But we’ve reduced the use of those by 80-90%. I took some “flour sack” cotton towels, cut them in quarters & hemmed them to replace where we would have used paper towels. And some i sewed the quarters in rectangles (folded them in half & sewed them) to use as my cleaning clothes.

    Years ago i had 50/50 linen/cotton sheets that i loved! I would so like to have linen sheets, but they are very pricey. Just can’t justify the cost of them for our big bed.

    • Kate, I also like the look and feel of linen. Great to hear that you are on your way to having a collection of napkins! Make yourself some ‘ugly’ cotton napkins to use guilt-free with messy meals like spaghetti or ribs. You won’t feel badly if the ugly ones are slightly stained after washing.

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