Consider the Dish Towel

Soft and adorable? Yes, but vintage dish towels are gluttons for punishment.

Food Features
Consider the Dish Towel

You can collect them because they are precious and twee, or shun them for the very same reason. Both approaches, however, are flawed. Dish towels—soft, decorative, and the epitome of domesticity—are made to take a beating, and you should gladly give it to them. They can, in their small way, make you a better cook.

Paper towels are inelegant. They are also convenient, but only for a moment, because they don’t absorb moisture nearly as well as cloth towels or rags. Their big advantage is their disposability. Use them once, throw them away, and don’t fret about the laundry pile or any crusty germ-tinged food residue lurking inside it.

I do use paper towels, but only when I have to. I had a boss once who dictated to me a recipe for grilled cocoa-rubbed leg of lamb, and he recommended patting the raw lamb dry with cloth towels instead of paper ones. “Are you crazy?” I thought, imagining the hassle of dealing with brownish-red meat juice later on. Ah, but this towel-to-dead-flesh application was coming to me from a man who abandoned a strawberry farm to establish a house of sparkling wine, which he then sold to begin a chocolate factory. Whimsy was his medium.

This is the cue to take. Most of us do not have artisanal chocolate factories to bandy about, but anyone can get their hands on a stack of good dish towels and use them with abandon. Few things feel so right yet so wrong, so practical yet so indulgent.

The dish towels I like best are linen, gently flocked with age and use, that some patient soul long ago embroidered embellishments on: teacups and flowers, anthropomorphized plates and spoons with dancing legs and cheerful smiles. I imagine these women sitting with their hoops, pulling exacting stitches like characters from a Jane Austen novel. The absurdity of doing such painstaking decorative handiwork on an item destined to wipe up baby puke or dry damp lettuce greens is touching and bizarre. Perhaps these mystery housewives did not have anything better to do, but more likely they wanted to sprinkle pockets of delight on everyday items to inject a little cheer in the dreary, relentless cycle of housework.

Look carefully and you can see the patch job on this dish towel

Some people call them tea towels. It sounds very Beatrix Potter to do so. In the U.K., they were actually employed in the afternoon teatime ritual; the towel was wrapped around the teapot to contain its heat and catch any drips. Having a dainty, spotless towel to perform such a task was a sign on refinement and superior skills as a hostess, and thus the tea towel’s specialized nature originated in the pomp and circumstance of the Victorian era.

Not being a tea drinker, I call them dish towels even though I don’t often use them for dishes (I prefer to air-dry), and for hand towels I like terrycloth; it takes only about half a hand washing to completely saturate a dish towel. The true glory of a dish towel lies in its application to food. On a big day of cooking, I go through a pile. If I’m canning, I run through a stack. I use them to dry produce, or as a bed to drain sterilized jars. Some of the thinner and finer dish towels can be used as cheesecloth in a pinch. If a dish towel is nice and dry, I’ll use it as a potholder. Since they’re long, you can use one to cover both handles of a hot stockpot.

My dish towels are almost all used. Some I could legitimately call “vintage”; the newer ones are simply already broken-in for me. I don’t like silkscreened dish towels, for instance, unless some of the ink is worn off from many washings. The silk-screening makes the towels too stiff, in my opinion. I have a souvenir dish towel from San Francisco, emblazoned with an image of the Golden Gate Bridge and a 1996 twelve-month calendar. I doubt anyone reached for it in 1996 when making an appointment, but I enjoy using it now, because I ponder 1996 when I unfold it, and I think about how long ago that year is becoming.

That’s part of the appeal for people who collect dish towels, although some aficionados preserve them the same way people collect Nike sneakers or Star Wars figures still in the blister packs—or, in a more extreme form, the same way Andy Warhol collected cookie jars. There are kitchen linen historians, if you will. The most collectible dish towels tell the stories of their eras. Some have recipes printed on them, or calorie counts, or even Henny Youngman-style one-liners. A lot of the embroidered ones were sold as kits. You can buy such a kit on Etsy right now, in fact, but with a cheeky and ironic reference to thug life to go with the teapot motif. Perhaps my future great-niece will see such a dish towel decades from now and find it impossibly cheesy yet cute (I will graciously spare you my present opinion; know she won’t have inherited that one from me).

My clutch of dish towels, which I’ve partly inherited from great aunts and partly snatched up at rummage sales on the cheap, is not a collection so much as it is equipment. I sometimes inadvertently wreck one with stains or mildew or a scorch mark, in which case it becomes a rag, or garbage. So it goes.

And there’s the laundering issue. Meaning dish towels do not wash themselves. They also seem creepily inappropriate, once soiled, to combine with things like bath towels or underwear. I have a separate small hamper for cloth napkins and kitchen linens because of this, but not everyone is inclined to be so finicky about sorting and washing this stuff. Also, we have a washer and a dryer in the house. I once survived days of cramming crumpled clothes and other unmentionables into a collapsible granny cart and lugging it in the swelter of summer or the arresting chill of winter to the nearest dingy laundromat, where the lumbering machines greedily devoured my quarters. Kitchen linens only increase the hell. You folks in this boat get a free pass; load up on the paper towels.

Still, I don’t believe in an item being too pretty to use. Usefulness is a virtue and, sadly, a privilege. I’d like to say you can make a dish towel’s life by giving it a concrete purpose besides taking up space, but dish towels don’t have feelings. So grab one and just use the damn thing. Make it dirty. Then wash it in hot water with white vinegar, which will keep it smelling nice and fresh instead of … well, you know.

While the rest of the world pines away over bucket lists, lead a life of tiny luxuries and wipe your chapped hands dry with something embroidered by a person who’s probably now dead. Get it sticky with preserves when you wipe the rims of hot-hot canning jars. Drape it over a splayed-open leg of lamb and make it red with meat juice. You only live once, but dish towels? You can reach for them and wash them and then reach for them again and again, until they fall apart.

Margaret Thatcher getting her dish towel on in 1974. Photo by Larry Ellis/Getty

Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor.

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