Collecting Tea Towels

A dear tea-loving friend introduced me to the idea of collecting tea towels. Before that, I assumed that tea towels were just fancy kitchen towels that you only put out when company came. So my friend was horrified when she caught me wiping my hands on one of her rare towels. And she was a bit surprised by my ignorance of one of the significant tools of serving fine tea. 

Traditionally made of the finest cotton and linen fabrics, they were reserved for drying fine china and crystal and were reserved for formal use only. But they were also used for fine needlecrafts and more. Women would practice their stitches and use an afternoon teatime with friends to demonstrate their talents.

Vintage tea towel

And we would remember that, at this time, tea was a luxury. It was so expensive that tea cupboards were locked and the ladies of the house often served it themselves rather than trusting servants. The pomp and ceremony of the western style tea service became an important part of daily life for those of means.

An art to tea towels developed that elevates them above the normal absorbent cotton work-horses of the kitchen and catapults them to places of honor in antique shops and museum gift stores. In fact, tea lovers and collectors of tea equipage share a history in the world’s art community because the fine quality of the fabric was used by some artists as a canvas when normal artist’s canvas was not available. 

I admit to having noticed collectible tea towels in the gift shops at art museums and wondered about why someone would consider producing this “merch”. One of our previous articles, Tea Towel & A Yayoi Kusama Exhibit,  by Ifang Hsieh caught my attention. Ifang shares the fact that this brilliant artist also created a simple tea towel that she calls “Love Forever”. This is an art form that has been hiding in plain sight. It took a gift from a friend to attract my attention.

Modern Tea Towel Art

Textile artist, Joann Condino, is revitalizing the art of the tea towel with her handprinted wood block creations. It was through a gift of her tea towels that I found out about her and contacted her about sharing her work during the recent Virtual Tea Festival. (video below)

This vintage art form inspired Joann to apply her wooden block printing to fine linen tea towels. Her collection of hundreds of hand carved wooden blocks lend themselves to a combination of beautiful designs. She applies them to fine linen towels. Unlike more modern printing techniques, each towel is created by applying the color to the block and then pressing it into the fabric.

Joann assures me that the design is permanent so that the towels can be used and washed. In fact, she tells me that they actually soften and the linen becomes even more absorbent with use. Like some of the vintage collectibles that were part of the afternoon tea tradition, the people who originally crafted them fully intended them to be used. So I’m getting ready to put my new treasures to work at my own tea table. I believe that I will be one of those people who put art to use. I look forward to having my guests ask about the beautiful design and then being able to share Joann’s story.

Joann's tea towels


Vincent Van Gogh – Daubigny’s Garden

One last note about the surprising history of tea towels, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the fine linen and cotton were sometimes claimed by artists as a canvas. One of the most famous examples of this is by Vincent Van Gogh, Daubigny’s Garden.  Of the three  different versions he is known to have made of this painting, one preserved in the Van Gogh Museum still has the woven red threads of the original fabric.

Because Van Gogh did not have any canvas at hand, he painted the garden on a red and white striped tea towel. He first covered the towel with a bright pink ground layer of lead-white pigment mixed with red. This pink base formed a vivid contrast with the green paint he used for the garden. The ground layer is visible between the strokes of paint. The red pigment has faded over time, so the pink base now looks grey.

Van Gogh Museum Website

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