Kitchn Love Letters

These Kitchen Towels Are the Perfect Example of Form-Meets-Function

published Jul 13, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

When I was a child, I had the good fortune of spending one summer in France with my family. My best memory: the markets, filled with piles of jewel-toned produce and flowers that were so lush and affordable that walking away with a bunch every trip was highly justifiable. (Maybe even required?)

Of course, there were other gems to be found at those markets, too. Items that were clearly part of the daily lives of the French, such as bags of herbes de Provence, mandolines, and linen tea towels. Yes, French linen tea towels are truly one of the most perfect examples of form meeting function!

Credit: Katie Workman

The Magic of a Classic French Tea Towel

Let’s start with function first. Dish towels are a part of almost every kitchen. And these days, as we look to reduce paper waste, we reach for towels more than ever — for wiping hands, drying dishes, and more. (Yes, I know you know what towels are used for.)

Moving on. Most classic French tea towels are either straight linen, or a blend of cotton and linen (called metis, meaning mixed). Both are soft and absorbent. And here’s what’s so great about linen: It gets softer as you use and wash it, until it relaxes into a caress of a towel! Don’t let the delicate texture mislead you, though — these towels are durable and effective, and last for a super-long time. And more good news: Linen is lint-free, so you can dry drinking glasses without leaving behind annoying specks of fluff. Plus, they’ll never scratch your finest crystal, so wedding Champagne flutes will stay pristinely sparkling.

I use my French tea towels not only for wiping and drying, but also folded as makeshift potholders. They also make for fantastic, causally sophisticated oversized napkins, too. And because they wash like champs, you shouldn’t be afraid to pull them out for saucy dinners. They’ll get the job done, look good while doing it, and rebound in the wash to serve another day.

Beyond the practicality of these towels, many of them are simply lovely to look at. They may be basic, creamy white linen; or a washed blue, pink, or red; or even a more vibrant color. Some have cheery stripes of color, or they may be richly patterned (either with typical Provençal or other regional designs).  

I will say, though, these amazing tea towels are pricier than your garden-variety dish towel, usually $15 and up per towel. That’s because linen is expensive. But it’s a manageable investment, all things considered, and if you’re a Kitchen Towel Person, it’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself (or treat a friend to). I’ve had some for years, and they give me daily pleasure as I go about cooking and feeding my family and friends.

Where to Buy French Tea Towels

Where can you get your tea towels, without a round-trip ticket to Nice? First, try Etsy, the source of so many artisan-made goods. Aimee’s French Market or Heirloomed sell lovely versions. Or browse companies that have been making them for years, such as Thieffry and Le Jaquard Français. And if you’re into flea markets (I’m a flea market Olympic athlete myself!), keep your eyes open for vintage tea towels, perhaps brought home from a long-ago trip to France or maybe French-inspired. You might even get a bargain, which makes the towels more of a prize!

If you dive deep into French dish towels, as I have, you’ll probably end up with a couple of stacks — some a bit worse for the wear, which get relegated to heavy-duty tasks, and some you think of as “good” tea towels. (Please tell me my mother and I aren’t the only ones who have differentiated our dish towels into categories.) Keep the pretty ones in plain sight, but don’t be so quick to toss the ones that have been put to good use — they’ll still have lots of life for years to come.

Do you love French tea towels, too? Tell us about it in the comments below.