Our life is fossilised in the geological strata of our tea towels
We have dozens, some for making prosecco look like champagne, others for extinguishing fires
Champagne? Photograph: Getty Images
The first Christmas after we met, my wife gave me some tea towels and I nearly broke up with her. Perhaps I really needed some. Maybe I was drying plates on the bum of my jeans. I can’t remember. But I was horrified at the utilitarian nature of this “gift” and ungraciously gave a disgusted snort. To be fair, I got other presents but I forget what.
That same December and for some years following, I gave her things calculated to delight her eye, amuse her mind or adorn her body. And she reciprocated with fine wine and good shirts. Then we bought our cottage and had children. I gradually came to realise the value – the necessity – of useful presents and converted. One subsequent Christmas I was thrilled to get an electric sander and I melted her heart with a large stockpot. But neither of us have since risked gifting a tea towel. We don’t need to. We have scores accumulated over two decades together.
They seem to be very hard to throw away, and we have a massive pile in the cupboard under the stairs. Layered like geological strata, they are a record of our cohabitation, and those original tea towels, still with us and near the bottom, form the bedrock of our domestic life. At the top are the current dozen or so favourites but, curious as to what lay beneath, I did a little archaeological excavation the other day and rediscovered forgotten treasures among old, familiar, long-retired stalwarts.
In one of her brief, earlier lives, my wife did a little catering and acquired industrial quantities of the things and there they all were. Well used for wiping, mopping, insulating and extinguishing (I have to say extremely rare) small fires, they are completely clean but exhausted. Adjacent to these are the last few surviving muslin squares we bought when the boys were babies. Originally used to deal with infant emissions, they were reincarnated to strain spices or fruit in making marmalade, chutney or jelly. Despite often being boiled to medically sterile levels, they are way past white but sentimentality requires they are kept.
Then there are the rarely used “special” tea towels: fine Irish linen ones good for cleaning glasses; elegant ones I use to drape over a bottle in the ice bucket to make prosecco look like champagne; and “tasteful” ones with maps of various Mediterranean islands. These last are mostly ironic gifts from my sister-in-law back from her holidays. Unfortunately irony has a short life. A kitsch but pristine tea towel is droll – a used, washed one swiftly becomes naff. So we all chortle when she gives us something from Sicily, then stick it in the cupboard.
This is wise of us, because during my scholarly investigation of the subject I was surprised to find that people are judged not only by their actual tea towels but also by their tea towel etiquette. I smiled to hear a friend complain of the scolding she got from her mother if one of hers showed the slightest stain – no matter how clean. But then I was chastened to realise a liberal-minded aunt of mine was a fundamentalist. Multi-use tea towels are anathema to her. “One purpose only!” she vehemently asserted, before waving a bright yellow one triumphantly at me, declaring “That’s 20 years old!” Then she muttered disapprovingly of people throwing tea towels over their shoulders: “Very unhygienic” she sniffed. I had opened a can of worms.
I admit to having certain standards myself. With the spread of the dishwasher, offering to help with the dishes after a meal with friends is a less frequently required ritual, but when I sometimes do, it’s very frustrating to be given a sub-standard tea towel. A uselessly thin one begrudgingly smears the damp around the plate and you start to resent the chore and then your host – regardless of however fine a dinner they’ve just given you. A nice absorbent one is, of course, very satisfying to use, until, sponge-like, it gets annoyingly wet itself ... and again you start to resent the chore, then your host. It’s a minefield.
Then there’s the thorny question: to iron or not to iron? A crisply pressed and neatly folded linen tea towel is the appurtenance of the very summit of gracious living but I can only aspire to this. I secretly yearn for such elegance while disdainfully, hypocritically, shamelessly dismissing it. At home, I do all the laundry, and honestly, I couldn’t be arsed. If I get the tea towels out of the dryer while still warm and flatten them against my chest before folding, they’ll just about do. But my ambitions are almost approached in fine weather. When I use the rotating washing line on the slope behind our cottage, ironing is nearly unnecessary. Looking at the blue hills across the valley on a warm day while unpegging a bone-dry tea towel, then snapping it with a whip crack before folding it neatly is a small but deep pleasure.