Belfast Telegraph

How that time honoured chore of doing the dishes inspired an art form in itself

So much more than a mere kitchen staple, Michael Boniface maps the design trends of the unassuming tea towel since it became a thing of beauty in the 1950s

Tea towel from Guinness
Tea towel from Guinness
Tea towel from Ulster Weavers
Tea towel from Cath Kidston
Tea towel from Dorothy Miller
Tea towel by Ian Logan

Elevating the status of the humble tea towel to that of cultural icon may seem a step too far - but as a symbol of domesticity, stability and design creativity, it certainly ticks a lot of boxes.

Since its emergence during the Industrial Revolution, the tea towel has become so much more than just a handy, everyday kitchen item.

It's an essential memento of leisure spending for starters, and - importantly - a means of commemorating significant national events.

Tea towels have also been vehicles for a host of design movements and graphic styles over the years.

As society has changed, so too have tea towels - with their unique, intricate designs offering a window onto civic shifts far exceeding the confines of the item's practical utility.

Initially used to keep the teapot warm, the kitchen staple has grown into a fashion accessory, a form of democratic art, and even a tool of political sloganeering - as a new book, The Art Of The Tea Towel, by Marnie Fogg, showcases and celebrates.

Here's a look at the evolution of the tea towel from the 1950s onwards...


After the bleak austerity of the Second World War, colour and pattern were introduced to household goods as innovations in product design flourished.

Tea towels took on dynamic asymmetrical forms, such as the pointed boomerang, a symbol of movement and flight, or the artist's palette, with blobs of vibrant colour.

Despite women returning to the domestic sphere after enjoying relative freedom during the exigencies of war, this evolving aesthetic of colour and shape reflected a broader shift. Kitchens were no longer seen as the domain of servants, but the heart of the home, and a firm responsibility of women.


Although design trends of the post-war style remained, tea towels of the 1960s witnessed a fresher, vibrant and more youthful aesthetic.

The emergence of pop culture and the youth revolution led to the elevation of colour and pattern over form.

The development of 'Pop Art', which assembled cultural icons and transformed them into high art, saw tea towels emblazoned with new material, such as creative, colourful reproductions of the Union flag.

Meanwhile, full employment of the era led to a consumer revolution and the young middle classes aspiring to a different kind of kitchen.

Women rejected the boredom of the mechanised kitchen and expected to share domestic duties with their husband; with home-owning couples now displaying an enthusiasm for modern design. Tea towels were subsequently produced with matching products, including oven gloves, aprons and table napkins, for a cohesive look.


Design trends of the Seventies were influenced by a number of different themes, most notably second wave feminism and nostalgia. This affection for the past was reflected in the introduction of natural materials to the domestic home, such as hand-woven baskets and antique floral jugs.

Tea towel aesthetics reflected such changes, with creative elements of design being relegated to the overarching need for a celebration of local features.

Similar to the postcards of today, tea towels would display landmarks of local pride, be that a beach front, railway or botanical garden, while those purchased in Scotland, Ireland and Wales inevitably included national emblems such as the thistle, shamrock and daffodil.

Despite far-reaching efforts to evoke memories of an imaginary golden age, such designs were executed with varying degrees of graphic sophistication.


Known as the 'designer decade', an expanding consumer culture during the Eighties bought into the idea of 'lifestyle' marketing, in which the domestic interior played a major part. It was an era of conspicuous consumption and heralded the emergence of the 'yuppie' - the 'young, upwardly mobile (or urban) professionals'.

Open-plan kitchens became popular, as walls and doors that traditionally separated distinct functional areas disappeared. It was a concept designed for family living, with country-house style kitchens becoming fashionable again - a throwback to the 18th century.

Here, a symbol of status was found in the AGA range cooker, which featured a front bar from which to hang tea towels.

This aspirational, grandiose influence found itself challenged by an emerging aesthetic of 'shabby chic', which encompassed faded chintz, worn painted furniture and simple fabrics such as pastel linen.

Tea towel design was thus also directed by a real desire for informality; kitchen supper becoming the new dinner party.


The minimalist Nineties was a period when kitchen essentials were laid bare; where design reverted to the Thirties ideal of being a laboratory-like space.

The vogue for open, industrial chic produced bare brick walls and polished copper pipes.

Tea towels were designed according to this prevailing culture of pragmatism, emblazoned with jacquard text stripes, yet purposely absent of free-form pattern.

The long lines and clear spaces of the minimalist interior were challenged by the notion of 'modern vintage'; an innovative aesthetic of charming nostalgia for the domestic life of the Fifties housewife.

Tea towels were duly adorned with bright glossy colours, faded florals, gingham patterns and polka dots; such comforting, cosy design trends accommodating for a generation of women who preferred to idealise rather than practise domesticity.


The years since 2000 have witnessed a relative detachment from minimalist design; the trend for concealing everything behind closed doors replaced by a renewed enthusiasm for home cooking.

Scandi-style is one design strand that has gained particular popularity, with features of pressed wood, neutral colours and natural textures.

Tea towel trends have also witnessed an upsurge of royal memorabilia, due in large part to the longevity of reign for Queen Elizabeth II, and the high-profile marriages of younger members of the royal family, such as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

On the other hand, tea towels also now host more radical messages, viewed by principled producers as widely accessible sites of social communication and political sloganeering.

The Art Of The Tea Towel by Marnie Fogg is published by Batsford, £16.99

Belfast Telegraph


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