Modern Interior Design Life Lesson That Dish Towels Taught Us
Updated: Nov 7, 2019
PEOPLE LOVE TO DECORATE SHIT. That's the life lesson. Sounds obvious or simple but it definitely goes deeper than my simplification.
The gist of it is that since time began, humans have been decorating things. Their clothes, their weapons, their homes. Some of the oldest surviving home art is cave paintings. You could research this topic for a lifetime. People have careers devoted to answering the questions: what is art? when did art begin? why do humans make art? It really is fascinating but what it all boils down to is that art and decoration are universal human traits. Cave painting from 20,000 plus years ago. Since my topic today is dish towels (a very utilitarian item), it's interesting to note that most cave paintings likely came to be for utilitarian purposes. This cave painter was perhaps thinking: "This area has bears & cougars. Good to know. I better paint some up here so everyone else knows too. Hmm, but maybe I should add a bunch to indicate that they're plentiful... Oh. Look at that. I'm getting a sense of depth within this animal grouping. NeatO!" And so a practical purpose begat art.
Brief History of Dish Towels
Since people have been washing utensils, there have been dish towels. Forever and forever, they were just an everyday thing. When they started to gain some status was at the height of nobility and servant culture in Europe during the 18th century. They were called tea towels and made of linen. The lady of the house would use them to dry fine china and porcelain tea cups because clumsy servants couldn’t be trusted to do the task. And of course the lady of the house, in all her spare time, would show off her embroidery skills by decorating her tea towels. So right from the beginning they had a decorative character.
When this culture hopped the pond to America, and the servant culture gave way to a very large middle class during the Industrial Revolution, tea towels became dish or kitchen towels. Linen was replaced by cheaper cotton. Frugal became an art form for households. Anything cloth was zealously preserved and upcycled for whatever purpose arose. From the late 1800’s – early 1900’s, people got their dish towels from the cotton sacks that were used to package flour, sugar, cornmeal and chicken feed. And, like their predecessors, they began embellishing the plain cotton sacks with embroidery.
Embroidered embellishment on plain flour sacks
Sack manufacturers caught on and began making decorative sacks to package their products. They even began including instructions to make tea towels in washable ink on the sacks. And the dish towel we know today was born.
I think the frugality back ground of dish towels really rooted them in the Midwest where there was a large working class population. Dish towels were and are still a constant. For some fun anecdotes and conversation about dish towels, watch this video. I have my fellow native Michigander friend, Emily joining me for a casual chat over drinks to talk about our Midwestern memories and opinions on dish towels. Our on-theme drink is a Kitchen Sink Gimlet and you can find the recipe at the end of this post.
printed flour sacks and tea towel instructions printed on flour sacks
WWII saw a boom in paper & plastic packaging and the flour sacks were no longer practical. The boom in paper also saw paper towels became more popular and dish towels took a back seat. But they were never gone. If you look closely at these kitchens, there is always a dish towel to be found.
There was a time period, and personal preference, for aprons that also sent dish towels to the back burner.
At random times later in his career, Van Gogh experienced canvas shortages and painted on tea towels he got from his stint at a mental asylum. One of these works sold in 2000 for 2.1 million pounds. I'm not sure if this is that work but according to the Van Gogh museum, this one was painted on a dish towel.
Modern Interior Design- Dish Towels
But even if they weren’t used, they were still in kitchens as a decorative item. They became the throw pillow of the kitchen. Some were purely decorative and not even absorbent. You could swap them out based on season or holiday. You gave them as house warming gifts.
Because of environmental concerns, there has a been a resurgence in buying reusable items vs disposable items. Dish towels have been reaping the rewards. You will no doubt find several dish towels in the Midwest Modern interior. There are usually 2 categories: practical and decorative. The decorative ones can still be absorbent but typically the most absorbent and cherished dish towels are unadorned.
I love eclectic touches and especially humorous ones. Dish towels are the perfect outlet for this. I love the vintage look of this dish towel with it's tongue in cheek phrasing. It also says "super absorbent" so that's an extra bonus.
Many of the modern dish towels that are decorative are screen printed. Sometimes you have to be wary of this process as the ink can inhibit the absorbency of the towel. Not always, but sometimes.
I absolutely love this blue of these blueberries. WOW.
There are plenty of really cool artisan dish towels on Etsy but I had to post one more from artgoodies. I am really digging this thermos pattern. Vintage item + modern usage = LOVE
There are some very nice, hand woven towels out there as well. Pricey but they last for years and are super absorbent. They tend to be less decorative but because they are hand woven have their own subtle beauty. Here's one of my favorites:
Speaking of weaves, I have a few dish towels that are almost completely useless because they are woven so tightly. They are practically water repellent. No joke. The Halloween dish towel from Crate and Barrel that I hold up in the above
These cute bunnies aren't going to be absorbing much of anything.
The other infinite source for decorative dish towels is Spoonflower. I have it on good authority that their cotton-linen is great for table linens if you're making your own. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure you can get any of their designs made into tea towels on their sister site Roostery. Digging these ones:
Kitchen Sink Gimlet
What goes more perfectly with dish towels than a kitchen sink drink. This is the cocktail my friend Emily and I shared during our Midwest Modern conversation about dish towels. It was perfect because Michigan had been in the throws of the polar vortex for a week so a cocktail with gin, mint, blackberries, and cucumber was a welcome taste of summer.
I mean just look at it. So tasty! Cheers!!!