Vintage tea towels offer a fascinating glimpse at domestic arts and textile history. You can collect these beautiful designs for use in your home today and display them in shadow boxes, frames, and other ways. If you're feeling creative, you can even use vintage tea towel embroidery patterns to decorate modern towels.
First Things First: Understanding Vintage Tea Towels
Tea towels can be a bit of a mysterious item to modern Americans, who naturally wonder what the difference is between a tea towel and a dish towel. The truth is, there's little difference. Tea towels are simply a subset of dish towel. While dish towels can be made of many different fabrics, the fabrics for tea towels are limited to cotton and linen. Tea towels date back to the 1700s, where housewives and maids used them to dry delicate china tea sets. This is why they are called tea towels, although they can actually be used for many purposes in the kitchen and dining room.
Vintage Tea Towel Embroidery Patterns
From the 1700s onward, people used tea towels to practice embroidery designs. Their small size and affordable fabric made them ideal for this purpose, and embroidering tea towels become a folk art. Embroidering tea towels was a popular hobby in the late 1800s through the early 20th century. There are some gorgeous vintage designs.
Redwork Tea Towels
Some of the oldest embroidered tea towels are the redwork, or "turkey work," towels of the 1880s. These towels feature simple red embroidery on a plain white or off white towel. Common themes include flowers, teapots, chickens, and other designs.
Cross Stitch Tea Towels
Popular as long as tea towels have been around, cross stitch embroidery decorates many vintage tea towels. Simple patterns, such as strawberries or flowers, make beautiful tea towel patterns. You'll find these embellishments on many examples.
Huck Embroidery on Tea Towels
Huck embroidery became popular during the 1940s. Commonly worked on huck toweling, an open-weave fabric, it often features Art Deco designs with strong geometric elements. Some huck embroidery includes multiple colors, and there was a lot of variation in the shades chosen.
Day-of-the-Week Tea Towels
If you peruse the wares in antique shops or flea markets, you'll also see vintage tea towels embroidered with the days of the week. Women used to do certain household jobs on specific days of the week, such as ironing on Tuesday. Many date to the early 1900s, and the day names are accompanied by designs of women doing that day's work.
Appliqued and Embroidered Tea Towels
Vintage tea towels sometimes use applique patterns to create a dimensional design with another fabric. To make this type of towel, popular throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the seamstress would cut a shape from another fabric, applique that shape to the tea towel, and embellish it with embroidery. Flowers were a motif.
Lace Inserts and Embroidery in Tea Towels
Adding lace inserts or crocheting lace was another way people embellished tea towels throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Often, the lace would be accompanied by delicate whitework embroidery on the tea towel, creating a monochromatic design that was feminine and pretty.
Vintage Tea Towel Embroidery Patterns for Making Your Own
If you'd like to try your hand at this vintage craft, you can use actual vintage patterns to make a tea towel yourself. Here are few resources for vintage tea towel embroidery patterns:
- PatternBee offers dozens of vintage tea towel patterns, including animals, days of the week, flowers, and more. A set of six patterns retails for about eight dollars.
- The Aunt Martha's Iron On Transfers Set includes four different sets of designs for tea towels, including animated kitchenware and coffee-related motifs. It retails for about six dollars on Amazon.
- Another great choice is the Stitcher's Revolution Cute Kitchen Saying Iron On Transfers. This set, which retails for about five dollars on Amazon, includes retro kitchenware with fun sayings.
- You can also find vintage embroidery patterns to use on tea towels on Etsy, which has a continuously changing selection of vintage designs.
How to Use Vintage Tea Towels in Your Home
If you're wondering what to do with vintage tea towels, there are actually many fun ways to put your antique finds to good use. Here are a few fun options:
- Make cafe curtains by using clip-on curtain rings to hang tea towels in your kitchen window.
- Create wall art for your kitchen or dining room by framing a vintage tea towel or placing one in a shadow box.
- If you find a vintage tea towel that is worn and no longer in good shape, make it into a pillow cover or chair cushion.
- Sew two or three tea towels together to make a simple fabric apron.
Show Off Lots of Different Designs
You can find vintage tea towels at antique stores, flea markets, and thrift shops, among other vintage textiles and kitchen items. These charming towels are usually affordable and easy to use in your decorating at home. Have fun collecting lots of different embroidery designs!