Tea Towels

This is Debi, and I want to thank everyone who commented on my pins and pin cushion newsletter. I made a Freudian slip in the opening paragraph which caught a lot of attention from readers! Yes, the retreat is in April not in January. However, I can assure you April will be here before I know it also!

Since writing that newsletter, I have been out with the flu and now I am scrambling to get this newsletter ready. I have shared the bug with Ryan and she’s a little under the weather now. I hope you will forgive me, but I decided to do a short newsletter about tea towels, keeping with the tea theme.

In the early 1800’s these special towels were linen with a fine weave. This made them great for use with the fine China, especially the delicate tea service. The British love their tea, even more so in the past where their tables were elaborately set up for tea time. This included everything from the fine China tea service, the spotless sterling serving pieces, and even the linens on the table. There were towels that wrapped around the tea pot, now known as a tea cozy. Other linens wrapped around the scones or muffins to keep them warm, which we call bread linens now. The towels were perfect for drying the delicate China or buffing the silver without leaving lint. Because of the service these linens performed, the British named these special towels, tea towels. Just like everything else, soon the Victorian stitcher began to personalize these linens turning them into prized heirlooms.

You can create your own linens with Hemstitched Linen Towel (9719C) and Linen Square (9718C). These happen to be in red, but they do come in other colors. Another great way to create a set of table linens is the Brights (9898) and Fall (9899) Napkin/Table Center sets. Not sure how to begin? This is a great book to get you started, Teach Yourself to Embroider (105-497-1957).

Bread cloths are a quick gift to cross stitch. Here are a couple of leaflets for inspiration. 36 Easy Bread Cloths (105-497-5524) and Christmas Towels and Bread Cloths (105-497-2944).

Towel Trivia

As I worked on the newsletter I kept seeing towels referred to by a specific name. While tea towels can vary in size depending on their specific use at tea table, other towels have some pretty standard dimensions. For example:

  • A Hand towel is 16" x 30" where a Wash towel is 13" x 13". Yet a Fingertip towel is 11" x 18" and is generally used in a guest bathroom.
  • A Bath towel is 27" x 52" but a Bath sheet is 35" x 60" with a Beach towel just a little narrower at 30" x 60.
  • A Sport towel is 20" x 40", made from very absorbent fabrics.

Technically, when I think of a tea towel I am really thinking of a kitchen or dish towel. This kitchen-type towel has an interesting history in the United States. Early housewives couldn’t afford the linen towels. They had to do with what they had, which was feed sacks.

It’s rather ironic that the development of the feed sack came into being because of the invention of the sewing machine. Prior to having the ability to lock-stitch the seams securely, the feed sack was not a reliable container. Original feed sacks were made from burlap and then muslin and hand stitching just couldn’t hold up to the job.

Once the sewing machine was invented, the bags could be sewn together and were commercially made beginning in the late 1800s. Someone with an eye towards marketing started stamping the company logos on the bags. Creative needle workers either enhanced the image or stitched over it entirely! The next advancement was the use of cotton rather than canvas-like fabrics. It cost so little to manufacture the new cotton sacks that the farmer didn’t have to reuse the bags for feed. The ever vigilant housewife started saving those sacks because a100-pound flour sack could have a piece of material up to 37" x 43". When it came to the attention of the feed companies that the bags were being reused by the ladies, they decided to use printed cotton material for the bags. The intent was to create a secondary reason to purchase their feed, namely the need to gather up enough of the same fabric to make a dress, curtains, toys, quilts, and more.

The concept worked! The colors were vibrant and the selection so large that there was a lot of trading of fabrics among the women. These bright printed fabrics are still quite collectible. Here is a lot of authentic feed sack prints from the 1930’s-1940’s that just sold on eBay.

However, the plain cotton flour sack towels still had a place in the American stitcher’s basket and kitchen. So, another industry was created to help stitchers make the best use of them-the hot iron transfer. In the beginning there were three major companies producing transfers-Vogart, Workbasket and Aunt Martha’s.

Vogart actually began as the Vogue Needlecraft Co. in 1930. Located in New York City, one of their first products was a stamped pillow case with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. A dozen more Disney licensed designs were sold under the name Vogue Art. Vogart partnered with the F. W. Woolworth Co. in the 1930’s. Vogart helped shape the industry in many ways. They created embroidery kits and sold additional supplies. Wanting to expand further, they entered the fabric paint business in the 1940’s. I went through a very long (and expensive) Tri-Chem fabric paint phase. The Tri-Chem booth was my first stop at the Kansas State Fair every year for probably a decade! Unfortunately Vogart filed for bankruptcy in 1990, but not due to the lack of business. The company could not fulfill all the orders they were getting! It was interesting to learn that the Vogue pattern company is not associated with these early companies.

If you’ve been doing needlework for any time at all, I bet you have come across the Workbasket magazine. This magazine had its humble beginnings in 1935 as a 16-page booklet on newsprint. This was a Mom and Pop (Tillotson) operation located in Kansas City publishing under the business name of Modern Handcraft. I can’t help but marvel at their accomplishment. This magazine covered many different types of needlework every issue. One resources said the magazine was able to include new trends as they happened and just as quickly drop them when they had run their course. However, I am inclined to believe the early magazine greatly influenced the trends since Workbasket had the largest following of the craft-related magazines. In addition to teaching new techniques, there were tips and tricks, recipes, and even articles on how to earn money from your crafts. Workbasket included a large sheet of hot iron transfers which made it worth even more in a time when money was scarce.

The original magazine was entitled "Aunt Martha’s Workbasket Home and Needlecraft for Pleasure and Profit."

The back issues are quite collectible especially those from 1935 thru 1944. During this time, paper drives were held and most paper publications were recycled for the war effort. By 1960, the name of the magazine was shortened to "Workbasket" but physically it had grown to 80 pages. The magazine is like a mini-time capsule in the evolution of women’s issues as you read the articles and advertising. However, in 1996, after 61 years and 671 issues, Workbasket published its last issue.

The third big name in transfers was Aunt Martha’s transfers, also located in Kansas City.

I spent way more time than I should trying to find a verifiable connection between the Aunt Martha’s Workbasket magazine and the Aunt Martha’s transfers. Aunt Martha’s transfers were printed by The Colonial Company beginning in the 1930s. There is much speculation about the two companies because of the Aunt Martha’s heading. However, The Colonial Company, now Colonial Patterns has always published the Aunt Martha’s transfers. It is likely that the transfers included in the Workbasket magazine were printed by the Colonial Company. However, it doesn’t appear that a single company owned both of these entities at any time. Aunt Martha’s is still around and going strong. While creating new transfers, they have reissued many of the popular vintage images and expanded their product line.

These three industry giants kept the world in easy-to-use, affordable patterns. However, the popularity of the flour sack towel was lost due to production costs just like the feed sack. In the late 1960’s, the paper bag became the packaging of choice. By the end of the decade the flour sack towel had all but disappeared except as a souvenir item. Tea towels, and kitchen towels, are still a wonderful gift and are often souvenirs.

Here’s another bit of Towel Trivia:

Did you know that Van Gogh used tea towels to paint on when he ran out of canvas? Van Gogh spent some time in a mental asylum. Sometimes the canvas his family was supplying did not arrive timely. Van Gogh would use a tea towel from the asylum’s kitchen as his canvas. The Wheatfields in a Mountainous Landscape was one of those paintings, which is now on display in the Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Aunt Martha’s is still producing patterns and supplies to keep you stitching. We carry a variety of Hot Iron Transfers in a multitude of designs). There are also pattern transfer books now, like Aunt Martha’s Kittens (2333A) and European Delights (2333C). If you want to design your own, use the Hot Iron Transfer Pencils (6633).

It’s always fun to take a look back to see how the things we take for granted today actually developed! Hope you have enjoyed this quick look at tea/kitchen towels and the hot iron transfers that made them easy to decorate.


We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:

“The following article was written by Debi Feyh of Nordic Needle and published in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted by Nordic Needle to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their weekly e-mail newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com. A free mail-order catalog is available to you upon request if you live in the USA or Canada.”

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