Thursday, 30 January 2014

Perfumista lifestyle markers: the owning - and 'dishing out' - of tea towels

Sorry - some of these were fished out of the ironing basket...
This week marks the sixth anniversary of my being struck down by sudden onset perfume mania. Ever since I started reading Basenotes and perfume blogs back in early 2008, I have periodically come across discussions about which other tastes and interests people who love perfume also have in common.  Cats are one of the most frequently quoted examples, as comprehensively documented in Ari's famous perfume blogger pet post.  A love of fine wines, soft furnishings, greyhounds, cheese, books, fine art, music, posh chocolate, fancy teas, aromatherapy oils and sundry other lifestyle 'markers' have also been cited as evidence of an approach to life that is at once intellectually curious and keenly attuned to sybaritic pleasure.

Then the other day, in her account of a meeting in Vienna with APJ blogger Portia, Olfactoria happened to mention a gift of tea towels from the ebullient drag queen from Down Under to Sandra and her.  For anyone interested in chapter and verse, Birgit's had a map of Cairns on it, for example.

Example of a Cairns tea towel ~ Source:

So then, in a remarkable turn of events, this innocent logging of a moderately utilitarian present sparked a lively debate in the comments to that post about the aptness or otherwise of such a gift - and before you could say 'Irish linen', a whole slew of tea towel aficionados was winkled out of the woodwork.  Okay, so by 'slew' I may mostly mean Anne-Marie (also from Australia, rather fittingly), who spoke of her ingenious habit of scenting tea towels with lemongrass - a nugget of housewife lore learnt at her mother's knee.

"But my idea is to choose something strident enough to cut through the scungy smell that tea towels tend to get no matter often they get washed and line dried. I know that smell well. My mother was both fastidious and frugal. She cleaned everything that didn’t move but she would wear the tea towels down to threads before replacing them. Urk."

*Not* a tea towel - a 'damp cloth' wholly dedicated to ironing duties

'Scungy' - I have not heard that word before, but it sounds like a malodorous fusion of 'scuzzy', 'scummy', 'gungy' and 'pongy'.  And another interesting mother was from Australia, and - possibly due to my father's extremely tight rein on the housekeeping (perversely, she didn't get a washing machine till we children had long since left home) - also kept tea towels till they were threadbare and beyond.  I have a number which I inherited from her which are even more rag-like now, but of sentimental value, obviously.  I don't scent them with anything, but they do get washed.  There seems to be an indelible mark on the one pictured.  In my defence, everybody needs a tatty tea towel to use to damp iron delicate clothes - that way if you accidentally burn it, it is no great loss.

Since reading this post, my mind hasn't stopped whirring and making connections between perfumistas and deeds involving the stockpiling - or giving - of tea towels. (Yay!  I managed to avoid saying 'gifting'!) Some readers may know these rectangular textiles by a slightly different name, but they are the towels you dry your dishes with, not your hands or other body parts.  And you wouldn't wipe kitchen surfaces with them either - that way lie dish cloths, J-cloths, sponge scrubbers, and - in my own case - lashings and lashings of kitchen roll.

At the top of the post is a shot of my tea towel collection when I first moved into the new house - the ones on the left were ALL moving in presents from a neighbour - how wet does she think my crockery is? ;)  The ones on the right are the legacy from my mother, barring the really frayed one, which deserved a shot on its own.

Supersized Danish tea towels!

I have since acquired two very large and stylish tea towels - also as a housewarming present - from a reader in Denmark. They are so generously sized that they have overshot tray cloths and are well on their way to being small tablecloths or picnic rugs.

And at New Year, Tara gave me a much longed for spaghetti server - no, really, it was! - and two festive tea towels, which of course I shan't broach till next Christmas:

Pretty Christmas tea towel duo

Hmm, now that I think of it, when I last met up with Katie Puckrik in November, and we spent an afternoon poking round the vintage shops of Notting Hill, the subject of tea towels came up quite spontaneously - which on the face of it might seem strange.  We were browsing in a general store, where Katie was after a sturdy, foldaway carrier bag.  There were some tea towels on display and she volunteered the fact that she liked to buy them as souvenirs from her travels.  I quizzed her on her aesthetic standards in this regard, and she explained that she was comfortable with 'touristy', and even slightly kitsch, as long as the design didn't tip over into completely tacky.  I am not sure I am sufficiently familiar with the complete gamut of household linen to envision a truly gross specimen, but if you know of any, please describe it in the comments in as lurid detail as necessary.

Oh, since I published this post, Katie has come back to me with her definitive preferences in the tea towel department, which are along the lines I remembered:

"Tea towels are my favorite souvenirs of travel and adventure - better than post cards and snow globes and t-shirts. I love them because they remind me of road trips and capers, while being a constant ally in the kitchen, where I use them daily for scores of different things.

My preferred tea towel graphic is a hokey 'sights of the city' panorama. I've got a bunch from London, and some from California and Brussels. An odd one was my 'Gentlemen's Clubs of London', which I found in an LA flea market. And a great one was my 'British Men' tea towel: a 60's-era survey of working men, including a bobby, a fishmonger, a cabby, a vicar, and a bowler-hatted city gent. I used both of those into rags.

I still have my Charles and Di tea towel celebrating their 1981 wedding. It's now retired from service, much faded but intact."

So there you have it - I think the perfumista/tea towel correlation is looking quite strong...;) And please do let us know where you stand in terms of your own propensity to collect or give away tea towels of any description.

Oh, I nearly forgot the one I bought myself for Christmas!


Unknown said...

I haven't bought a tea towel in my entire life. This actually shocks me a bit. I have bought all sorts of towels, flannels and dishcloths, but not a single tea towel. I do own about 2 dozens though, and they all come from the same source: my mother. She has a "giving tea towels for christmas obsession". She is also an avid QVC shopper and therfore I'm always on top of the newest in tea towel technology. Microfibres anyone?

Olfactoria's Travels said...

Your photo if the Cairns towel is the exact one I've got! :)
All this tea towel talk has really shamed me into trying to treat mine better, I fear the fall under the scungy label. I vow that from now on they shall smell at least half as good as I do!

Olfactoria's Travels said...

Sorry for the typos, I am regularly attacked by hungry kids while trying to type this!

Carol said...

I have tea towels - I have one dedicated for drying my hands after washing dishes ( don't dry dishes - I let them sit and air dry in the dish rack), and the other for wiping off the counter because I am a messy dish washer!
I'm quite picky about them. First, there are the 'pretty ones you display when company is over' and then the ones you use every day. And it's the ones you use every day that I'm picky about - they have to be absorbent! There are a lot of cheap non-cotton ones out there, so often I just buy bathroom hand towels and use those instead.

Vanessa said...

Hi Sabine,

You have done well to be given a veritable 'bottom drawer's worth of tea towels over the years from your mother. ;) I would expect nothing but the latest technology from a German lady of course, especially a keen viewer of QVC! I had a quick check and all mine seem to be of cotton, in varying degrees of thickness. The thickest ones work less well than the thinnest to be honest, which may explain why I am so attached to the old threadbare ones, which seem to pack a lot of absorbency into their thin fabric...;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Birgit,

Well, well! That is pure chance - I just googled tea towels of Cairns and up it popped! I fear mine may also fall into the 'scungy' zone before they eventually get washed, so I also need to improve on that score. After all, it is not as though I don't have others I could be using while some are in the wash?

Vanessa said...

That is quite fine - between the vagaries of Blogger and the unpredictability of small children, I am always pleased when you can manage to comment, typos and all!

Vanessa said...

Hi Carol,

You have introduced two non-standard categories of usage - as a 'dish cloth' and a 'hand towel'. I will be honest and say that when my tea towels get a bit damp anyway, I sometimes deploy them as dish cloths - most commonly in the immediate aftermath of a serious spillage of something! (When kitchen roll is out of its depth, type of thing.) I tend to dry my hands on little Moomin bar towels a friend gave me, but I would use a tea towel in a pinch.

I don't tend to display my tea towels for guests, though, as none of them go with the decor of the kitchen I inherited. Except the plain cream ones, of course. But I can see that if they matched, I might be similarly tempted.

Hazel said...

I was using one the other day - rather frayed, with pictures of exotic herbs, like tarragon and parsley - and thinking it must date from when I first lived away from home - 30, maybe 40 years ago. Certainly I haven't acquired any in the last decade or so, sybaritic dishwasher owner that I am

Anonymous said...

Linen tea towels are supposedly becoming collectors' items, as they get displaced by the cotton kind. The older the better, as they become soft and absorbent and even better at drying delicate stemware...AnnieA

SallyM said...

Tea towels! I love 'em! Trouble is, you cant get good ones imo - or at least not like I was used to back in ole Blighty - over here in the US. They mostly seem to be made of everything BUT cotton - microfiber (which feels really weird to me) or some version of terry toweling. And it seems that you have to go to a specialty kitchen shop to get cotton-y ones where you pay an arm and a leg. In fact it has been my mission on most trips back home to stock up (as well as mince pie tins - cant get them here either). Many of my friends look in bewilderment at my 2 hooks under the sink - one for a tea towel and one for a hand towel - they have no idea what the difference is for. Mind you, so many people don't even hand wash dishes here - and I have to admit, I use my dishwasher more than my sink - that it seems to render the honorable tea towel (gasp) redundant.

Unknown said...

I wonder how many tea towels I have? My husband's grandmother sends two or three embroidered ones every year for Christmas (plain white cotton with kittens in dresses doing chores) and I rarely retire them unless they are really holy. I also can't resist linens at antique or thrift stores or estate sales. My husband occasionally declares one a rag and ruins it in the shop before I can stop him otherwise I would be up to my ears in them.

Undina said...

Until today I didn't know if "tea towel" and "dish towel" were synonyms. So when I started reading this post I went to Wikipedia :)
I do not use tea towels for dishes or countertops - for that I have a dish rack and disposable paper towels. But I always keep those in the kitchen to dry hands.

The cutest one I have now is wine-themed one. And I consider buying another one - with cats.

Vanessa said...

Hi Hazel,

Oh, how I yearn to be a sybaritic dishwasher owner again - one day... It is remarkable how much mess the lone diner can produce. The tea towels I inherited from my mother are very much in that herbal spriggy vein - and probably at least as old as yours!

Vanessa said...

Hi AnnieA,

The point you make is something I have only twigged to in the course of writing this post. I simply had not figured out why my older tea towels seemed more absorbent and it will be the linen factor. And they are all old and soft as you say - if rather frayed, haha.

Vanessa said...

And thank you for saying 'delicate stemware'. What a beautiful expression. ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi SallyM,

Sabine mentioned microfibre ones from Germany and I must be honest and say I have only ever encountered a microfibre dish cloth and it gives off a funny static charge and is rather clingy. Interesting that you struggle even to find cotton, never mind linen. And no mince pie tins over there - who knew?

I definitely have distinct hand towels - the aforementioned Moomin ones above. I don't sadly have a dishwasher, as I said to Hazel. Ex-Mr Bonkers got custody of that, though in fairness it was one of those integrated ones, and I currently have nowhere to put one here!

Vanessa said...

Hi Liz K,

Kittens in dresses doing chores, eh? That's a first. I think you may mean 'holey'...;) I like the idea of tea towels becoming more saintly as they age. Would that we all did. I must try looking in antique shops for the linen variety - taking care not to bring any companion likely to kibosh my purchase. That was a funny story about your husband. Not sure he should be tampering with the merchandise in-store though, hehe.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Perhaps I should have specifically made the connection in my post between the two terms, rather than airily stating that readers may know tea towels by other names! Anyway, you cracked it with the help of Wikipedia and it seems you are more a fan of kitchen roll than tea towels in any event. Or rather that you use them primarily as hand towels instead. Like the sound of your wine-themed one - very apt. As a cat-themed one would be, of course!

Tara said...

You have surely uncovered yet another niche interest of the perfume community, V.

How nice you are saving the ones I gave you until next Christmas. You clearly treat your tea towels well. I love the one you bought with the tea-cups. Kafka's "British Men" tea towel is something I'd like to see :)

Ingeborg said...

I would never think of tea towels as somethig not OK to give away, just because we find so many nice designs these days. I am really fond of the lint free, soft and much used linen towels dating back to the 50s or so and which I think must originally have been used during barbering, not in the kitchen. I also have tea towels in a mix of cotton and linen from Georg Jensen Damask in Denmark, a real treat to use and they add a splash of colour in a minimalist kitchen. Not that I collect tea towels, but being without a dishwasher (no space) these are essential. Hand towels are another thing, and can well be more fluffy.

Anne-Marie said...

Yay! I'm famous! Quoted on Bonkers. And to have introduced the word 'scungy' into perfume discourse, my happiness is complete. (I believe it is indeed Australian and NZ slang for 'grotty', 'yucky' etc, with an implication of grime and sour smell.)

I'm for cotton tea towels myself because I find them actually more absorbent than linen which, in my experience, gets rather thin as it ages. And although I avoid my mother's habit of wearing them to shreds, I do follow her method of folding tea towels - in STRIPS, not SQUARES. Very, very fussy about this.

Great post! An anthropologist would have enormous fun with all the comments. Who would have thought that tea towel usage would be so revealing!

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Haha - it would seem so, wouldn't it? Actually, I will revise my plan for your tea towels, because of course one of them is plain cream and can - and will - be used all year long.

Oh, that was Katie, not Kafka, but the 'British Men' tea towel did sound a sketch, I agree! ;)

Vanessa said...

Hi Ingeborg,

I am with you on giving tea towels as gifts, though they have historically suffered from a bit of an image problem, along with peg bags and a pastry brush, which my mother was forever putting on her Christmas list and finding no one would buy her as they considered these to be such utilitarian items.

The two tea towels from Denmark pictured are indeed from Georg Jensen! - a pretty high end make, I infer. Are yours as big as mine?

Vanessa said...

Hi Anne-Marie,

Haha - famous might be overstating it, but you are indeed splashed all over Bonkers and your comment on OT was a very important trigger for this post. ;-)

Thanks for explaining the nuances of 'scungy' in more detail - I can relate to grotty and yucky, certainly. Interesting to see you favour cotton on absorbency grounds. This year I will put both fabrics to the challenge - I have tended to gravitate towards my thin linen ones. And I am in total agreement about the importance of folding tea towels in strips, not squares. And yes, I appear to have conducted an impromptu Usage & Attitude study on tea towels...

Vanessa said...

Oh, by the way folks, Birgit has confirmed that that Cairns tea towel I happened to find in Google images is the exact one she was given!

Martha said...

Hmm. I don't collect tea towels (mine tend to all be the same rather bland stripe), but I do have a growing heap of vintage handkerchiefs. Could this be seen as being two points on one collection-of-useful-but-interesting-linens spectrum? (Pillow shams could be elsewhere on that spectrum.)

Vanessa said...

Hi Martha,

Absolutely it could, and what a perfect coinage for the textile range in question! Having foxed a few readers with the very term 'tea towel', I must now go and google 'pillow shams' - I only know of cases...;)

Blacknall Allen said...

Tea towels as social markers? OK tea towels, we are a domesticated set!
I love Anne Marie's Mother's housewifely attention to the tea towel's scent, and should adopt it, as mine sometimes do get scungy.

They are the old waffle weave ones you see in Italian kitchens, with designs of vegetables in the weave. Usually turnips for unknown reasons.

Vanessa said...

Hi Blacknall,

We do appear to be domesticated, don't we? ;). I haven't gone the scenting route, mind. Oh, I have some waffle weave tea towels too, but have yet to see any with turnips on them, hehe.