Tea Towel vs Dish Towel? Find Out How They’re Different

tea towel vs dish towel

Dish towels and tea towels - they are all the same, right? Not quite! Each of them has its own distinct features and uses.

Not to humble brag, but these humble rags are much more important and useful than you might think!

Read on to find out what they are and how you can use tea towels and dish towels in your life! 

Table of Contents

What is a Kitchen Towel?

Before jumping into tea towels and dish towels, let’s start with the basics - the kitchen towel. Kitchen towels are a broad term that refers to any kind of towel used in the kitchen.

They are made from materials that are durable and absorbent. This coupled with the robust stitching and thickly woven fabric means that kitchen towels are long-lasting and versatile items - the perfect sustainable kitchen accessory!

Then there is the material that kitchen towels are made from. There are three main materials that are used here:

  1. Linen

    Linen fibers are soft and unlike terry cloth, do not leave any lint on the surfaces they are used on. Linen towels don’t fluff up even after using them repeatedly. Another big advantage is that they are quick-drying.

    Traditionally, kitchen towels made from linen are called tea towels but these days tea towels are also made of 100% cotton.

  2. Cotton

    Kitchen towels made from cotton are strong, absorbent, and extremely durable thanks to their tightly-woven fibers. They are also soft and don’t leave any scuff marks or lint when used to dry dishes or glassware.

    These days, you also get flour sack kitchen towels made from organic cotton in the market. Not only do organic cotton towels have all the good qualities of regular cotton towels, but they also have the added advantage of being eco-friendly and free from harmful chemicals. That makes these organic cotton towels safe to use around food - as cheese strainers, food covers, and a lot more.

  3. Terry Cloth

    A cloth woven from many loops of thread sewn together, terry cloth or terry cotton is popularly used to make bath towels. This fabric is super absorbent and can hold large amounts of moisture. However, terry cloth towels are fluffy and leave residual lint on surfaces, so they are not used to clean pots, pans, or glassware in the kitchen.

    Usually, towels made from terry cloth are called dish towels.

    Whichever material you choose, kitchen towels with cute designs can totally change the aesthetic of your kitchen. Depending on how you choose them, kitchen towels can give your space a comfy, homely look or a bold kitschy look, whichever you fancy. Besides, they are handy for a litany of tasks like drying dishes, wiping spills, drying hands, wiping countertops, drying veggies and fruits, and so much more.

Now that you know what kitchen towels are, let’s throw some light on the main source of confusion when it comes to kitchen towels: tea towels vs dish towels -  what are they, and what are the differences between them?

Related Article: eco-friendly kitchen products you must have to live a sustainable lifestyle

What Exactly is a Tea Towel?

Tea towels are usually made from linen or cotton and sometimes, a mix of the two. They are thin and soft, leave no fibers or lint as residue, and are generally safe to use around food.

Tea towels come in a variety of sizes and types - big, small, square, rectangular, plain, or fancy - and are a great way to accessorize your kitchen.

Tea towels have been around since the 18th century. They were used in Europe (especially England) during tea ceremonies and sometimes even to polish porcelain tea sets.

In the old days, when tea ceremonies were a matter of utmost importance, the lady of the house ensured that only the best china was used to serve the guests. Tea towels were used to keep the tea sets clean and smudge-free.

Many times, beautifully embroidered tea towels were used to wrap teapots to keep them insulated or to cover cupcakes, scones, and other tea-time snacks.

While the tea ceremonies of old Britain are not as common now, tea towels are still used when serving tea. They are also used to line bread baskets, dry vegetables, and also as kitchen décor.

Related Article: Sustainable Home Décor Ideas - 20 Unique Ideas You Will Love

What is a Dish Towel?

Dish towels are used in the kitchen to wipe spills and dry dishes, as the name suggests. Made from terry cloth, dish towels come in a variety of colors and patterns. They are fluffy and soft and are usually made from an absorbent, durable material.

People first started using dish towels in the early 20th century. In North America, housewives used to cut up the rough-textured animal feed sacks and put them to use around the house, but mainly in the kitchen to wipe surfaces after the day’s cooking was done.

These repurposed pieces of cloth were embroidered with flowers and other motifs to give them a nicer appearance.

Tea Towel vs Dish Towel: What’s The Difference?

Earlier, tea towels were also sometimes called dish towels. Even today, tea towels are sometimes referred to as dish towels. But there is a clear distinction between these two due to the materials, texture, and intended uses. 

Check out the important ways in which they are difference from each other: 

Tea Towel

Dish Towel


Usually made from linen, cotton, or a blend

Usually made from terry cloth


Soft and tightly woven

Relatively rougher and coarse in texture


Wick up and absorb less water

Are more absorbent and hold more water than tea towels. 


Tightly woven fabric

Looser and fluffier weave


Better for lining trays, drying utensils, 

Better for mopping up spills and wiping countertops

How to Use Dish Towels 

  1. 1. To wipe countertops

    Make the best use of dish towels by wiping down the countertops once you are done cooking. Because of their absorbent nature, dish towels make short work of this task.

  2. 2. To mop up spills and messes

    Dish towels are excellent at absorbing water. What better way to make use of these towels than to clean any kind of liquid mess? Its use is not restricted to the kitchen either! You can use dish towels to mop up spills, dry the dog, clean the baby chair after the little one is done eating, and much more.

  3. 3. To wipe hands

    To follow up on the previous point, once you are done cleaning the mess, you can wipe your hands with a dish cloth. Use a different, clean dish cloth, of course.

How to Use Tea Towels 

  1. 1. To line trays

    The classic way to use tea towels. Line your tea trays with pretty tea towels when you have guests over or to capture your everyday tea ritual for the ‘gram. In some kitchens, tea towels are also used to line bread baskets.

  2. 2. To dry utensils, dishes, and glasses

    Tea towels are great for drying dishes, glassware, pots, and pans. Because of the lint they tend to leave behind, dish towels made from terry cloth are not ideal to use when cleaning the utensils used to store or serve food.

  3. 3. To line kitchen shelves

    In a fix, if you run out of shelves liners, you can repurpose old tea towels to line the shelves in the kitchen. It helps absorb the inevitable drips from the recently washed dishes and glasses. It will also give your kitchen a cozy farm-kitchen vibe (an aesthetic that is quite popular at the moment!).

  4. 4. To handle hot pans and pots

    Use a folded tea towel or two to handle pots or pans just off the stove. For times when you can’t find a mitt or pot holder, this trick works very well! While this trick works well when you’re in a fix, tea towels can’t always replace mitts and pot holders, though. The heat can damage the fabric of the tea towel if used regularly which will result in a towel that is damaged and/or discolored.

  5. 5. To cover food

    As I mentioned earlier on in this post, tea towels made from linen or cotton are safe to use around food. Use tea towels to cover food. The cover keeps away fruit flies and other pests and also keeps the food warm. Use tea towels to cover baked goods like fresh bread, cakes, or scones if you fancy a British touch to your kitchen.

  6. 6. To dry vegetables and fruits

    Use tea towels, especially cotton ones, to pat dry veggies and fruits after washing. You can also use tea towels to wrap your herbs and leafy greens when storing them in the refrigerator. Because cotton and linen are breathable and soft, wrapping the greens in tea towels keeps them fresh for longer.

    Pro Tip: For produce and vegetables check out our 100% organic cotton reusable produce bags.

  7. 7. To protect surfaces

    Use tea towels to protect glass and wood surfaces when placing utensils on the table. You can use it to quickly mop up any accidental spills while serving food. Besides, tea towels with interesting designs are the perfect accessory to spruce up the dining table during special occasions.

  8. 8. To wrap gifts

    Using paper to wrap your gifts is quite run-of-the-mill, not to mention it’s also harmful to the environment. Instead, take inspiration from Furoshiki - the Japanese way of wrapping gifts in a square piece of tea towel; use cute tea towels or even thinner dish towels for wrapping presents. Not only is that a sustainable and environment-friendly way of gifting, but the person you give it to can also use the tea towel in their kitchen! Two gifts disguised as one - isn’t that clever?

  9. 9. For Art

    According to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Van Gogh painted still lifes and many other paintings on tea towels when he ran out of canvas to paint on. You can take a leaf out of Van Gogh’s book and create your own art on tea towels. How’s that for an unconventional idea?

Where to Buy Tea Towels

We do have collections for kitchen tea towels as well as turkish beach towels available on our website and check out here for bulk tea towels if you want to buy more than 50 pieces.

Final Thoughts

The versatility and utility of kitchen towels are boundless. I’ve seen tea towels used as everything from baby bibs to kitschy curtains to quick-fix handbags and even as pillow cases!

On top of the versatility, towels like these organic cotton kitchen towels are the perfect sustainable addition to your kitchen.

Use them the classic way or think up new ways of putting these towels to use, you can’t deny that tea towels are a must-have for any kitchen.

Author: Karen Lamar

Karen is the Chief Content Officer at Organic Cotton Mart. She has a Master's Degree in Environmental Science from NC State with a special focus in Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy. Since her High School days, she has been an Environmentalist and was the President of her High School's Environmental Club for 3 years before starting her freshman year at NC State. She has a deep knowledge and understanding of various environment-friendly movements like zero waste, minimalistic living, recycling, and upcycling.

1 comment

My grandmother, who raised me (I’m 72) born in 1893 and passed at 99 years old, always used the smooth, large cotton (i.e. flour sack) towels for dishes they absorb better than terrycloth. The terrycloth towels were used as hand towels to dry your hands after doing dishes or washing your hands. The medium size cotton or linen towels were used as tea towels and were usually more decorative than the other towels. And always used a dish rag (or dish cloth), much smaller than the rest, for washing dishes and counters, never one of the nice larger towels.


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