I was so flattered when writer EllynAnne Geisel (author of The Apron Book and Apronisms) sent me a preview copy of her upcoming book, called The Kitchen Linens Book: Using, Sharing and Cherishing the Fabrics of Our Daily Lives. The book is a charming little history of kitchen linens, beautifully packaged in a slim, hardcover, cloth-bound volume that speaks to the tradition of vibrantly patterned and colourful kitchen linens. The book traces the history of the humble tea towel and the evolution of their designs, but strikes a warm chord by sharing the stories of kitchen-linen collectors and their passions for these soft, unassuming implements - as well as the family rituals of washing dishes, eating breakfast in the kitchen and making daily meals. It is a sweet examination of American kitchen traditions as much as it is a thorough discussion of the history of kitchen linens. Sprinkled througout the book are classic recipes, tips on washing dishes, caring for your tea towels (never wash or dry them with fabric softener since it will leave a residue on the fabric that will transfer to the dishes) and instructions on how to make your own kitchen linens.
A very nice feature of the book is that it comes with a sheet of vintage butterick transfers in an envelope attached to the back cover of the book so that the reader can make her own patterns on a plain tea towel using the designs on the transfer paper:
COLOURFUL KITCHEN LINENS
Bright, beautiful kitchen linens got their start in the Depression. That's when even the wealthiest women, who were raised to oversee kitchen help, found themselves, out of necessity, doing all the cooking and cleaning themselves because they could no longer afford help. The better-off families had kitchens equipped with a few conveniences - a gas stove and a refrigerator, say - but most women faced an enormous task when it came to food preparation. Everything had to be prepared from scratch; you could buy a loaf of bread read-made, but little else. Women toiling over a hot stove or sink truly appreciated a bit of cheer in the way of vibrantly coloured and facifully designed dish towels.
And it wasn't just dish towels that took on colour and verve during the Depression. Tablecloths, too, became much more interesting as meals became less formal affairs. Dinner might still be served on the white damask in the dining room, but with Mother doing all the cooking and serving, it was inevitable that breakfast and lunch migrated to the kitchen - or more specifically, to a little room or alcove off the kitchen called the breakfast nook. The nook housed a square or gate-legged table that was surrounded by a couple of chairs or built-in benches. Conventional tablecloths would have been far too big for this cozy setup, so the breakfast cloth was invented.
A WORD ON FINISHING
Linen, cotton or linen/cotton blend towels that are bleached tend to be softer and more absorbent than their unbleached counterparts, but they will wear out faster, as bleaching compromises fibre strength. Beacause fabric sizing, excess dye and fabric softener all impair absorbency, always wash a new batch of tea towels before using them.
On my trip to Scotland in 2006, I collected a multitude of tea towels: a Scottish wildflower motif, a thistle motif and many others. This one above is my favourite. Its design is a collection of Scottish slang words and their definitions.