On a tour from Australia to the states my wife asked me to stop at the gift store and buy memorable fridge-magnets and tea-towels. Everywhere I went, none of the store attendants seemed to know what the latter was. My question is: What is the American word for 'tea-towel'?

  • 6
    This is the kind of question that needs images. For the US readers, these are (fancy) tea towels a la British johnlewis.com/home-garden/kitchen/kitchen-linens/tea-towels/… and this is a commemorative tea towel jarrold.co.uk/UserData/root/Images/Basement/milly%20green/… . It's quite plausible that Americans just don't have them. Maybe more Americans have dish washerS?
    – Simd
    Nov 24, 2014 at 20:20
  • 1
    @Lembik Why not edit them in, then? :) Nov 25, 2014 at 10:38
  • Tea towels are a very commemorative thing; I'm not sure why. I think every British child (or person who has ever been a child in Britain) has, at some point, had a tea towel made in school where everyone draws a picture of their own face or somesuch, and then the parents pay to get one. Odd really isn't it to use a depiction of your own child's face to mop up spillages and remove excess moisture from pans. Nov 25, 2014 at 15:02
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 26, 2014 at 0:19
  • 1
    Comments averring "Never heard of this" are not helpful in determining the answer to the question.
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 26, 2014 at 0:21

7 Answers 7


I guess they are called:

Dish towels:

  • a rectangular piece of absorbent cloth (or paper) for drying or wiping

    • A tea towel or drying-up cloth (English), or dish towel (American) is a cloth which is used to dry dishes, cutlery, etc., after they have been washed.

    • In 18th century England, a tea towel was a special linen drying cloth used by the mistress of the house to dry her precious and expensive china tea things. Servants were considered too ham-fisted to be trusted with such a delicate job, although housemaids were charged with hand-hemming the woven linen when their main duties were completed.Tea towels have been mass-produced since the Industrial Revolution.

Ngram - BrE: dish towel/tea towel/drying-up cloth/dishcloth.

Ngram - AmE: dish towel/tea towel/drying-up cloth/dishcloth

(from Wikipedia): Towel.

  • 18
    I'm a Brit and I'm sure I've never heard anyone say drying-up cloth. Nov 23, 2014 at 21:02
  • 6
    Dishcloth is another common alternative, though dish towel is probably more dominant (based on my own experience in the US together with this interesting ngrams graph: goo.gl/sxyPFK ) @chiastic-security: as a fellow Brit, drying-up cloth was the name my family used when I was growing up (in London, one parent from Essex, one from Australia).
    – PLL
    Nov 23, 2014 at 21:05
  • 11
    @JanusBahsJacquet- How do you define towel? To me it's a piece of cloth (or more generally material) that's absorbent used to dry things. In this case dishes.
    – Jim
    Nov 23, 2014 at 21:24
  • 32
    To me, dishcloth means the cloth used for washing the dishes. (I'm an American raised partly in Australia, FWIW.)
    – LarsH
    Nov 23, 2014 at 22:24
  • 10
    @ LarsH Same thing in western Canada. Dishcloth is roughly the size as a facecloth, but used for washing dishes, while dishtowel, is tea towel equivalent. Nov 24, 2014 at 7:35

I am American and familiar with "tea towel", but I think more commonly you'll see them called "kitchen towels". I would be surprised to find them in a gift store - they don't strike me as very collectible items. That may be the larger cultural disconnect.

  • 19
    Oh that's confusing to me as a BrEng speaker! Kitchen towel or kitchen roll is the disposable paper stuff. I love how many subtle differences there are between BrEng and AmEng! Nov 23, 2014 at 20:34
  • 2
    Souvenir shops will have the city/country's name and map plastered over it. I have an aunt who loves collecting tea-towels.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 23, 2014 at 20:35
  • 3
    @Mari-LouA Not to be confused with cute lace doilies. This sort of decorative hand towel is often part of the kitchen’s seasonal décor, and so are often swapped out seasonally by people who care about that sort of thing.
    – tchrist
    Nov 23, 2014 at 20:47
  • 7
    @JamesWebster- We just call those paper towels
    – Jim
    Nov 23, 2014 at 21:22
  • 5
    @tchris - Mari-LouA is right. There are apparently many souvenier kitchen/dish towels. Never knew that :)
    – Lynn
    Nov 23, 2014 at 23:44

As an American, I can tell you that we have many different absorbent materials in our kitchens. Here's an inventory of ours, along with the typical uses.

  • Dish towel - always kept clean of food or hand contamination, used only to dry clean dishes after washing them. Sometimes known as flour-sack towels, they are flat, 100% cotton. They are often printed with a design, or occasionally embroidered for decoration. These are what you would likely call tea towels.
  • Kitchen towel - multipurpose towel used for hand drying, counter drying, and absorbing food or drink spills in an emergency. Generally thicker than a dish towel, often made of a terry cloth. These tend to be more utilitarian, and generally not as decorative as a dish towel.
  • Paper towel - disposable paper towels used for many of the same purposes, but also for cleaning up non-food messes (dog accidents, mud, heavy grease, etc) where there is no desire to contaminate a food prep towel.
  • Dish rag - A small towel used for scrubbing dirty dishes.
  • Sponge - Almost all kitchen sponges are artificial, made of open-cell foam. Larger ones are used to absorb large quantities of spilled liquids, smaller ones are used to hold a soapy mixture for scrubbing dirty dishes. Some sponges may have a non-abrasive plastic mesh on one side for aggressively scrubbing baked-on foods from pots and pans.
  • Scrubbing pad - often called by a brand name, such as a Brillo pad or a Scotchbrite pad, these are a stainless steel mesh and are used to aggressively scrub baked-on foods from pots and pans.
  • 1
    This seems to mirror standard kitchens here quite well, except we use a regular (larger) terrycloth towel for hand-drying, and a separate, small, rectangular, non-terrycloth (but also not cotton) one for counter wiping and spill absorption. And of course our dish rag is a dish brush. I might call a scrubbing pad a scouring pad, but at least there's no confusion as to what those are. Nov 25, 2014 at 10:13

Mirroring John Deters' answer, here is an inventory for the British kitchen (well, Home Counties English - I'm sure there are further local variants):

  • Tea-towel, or drying-up cloth - [=JD's Dish towel] clean, thin, absorbant, passed from generation to generation until disintegrating. Commemorative pictures, flowery patterns, rude phrases.
  • Hand towel - towel for drying hands, when in the kitchen. Made of terry cloth, fluffy, plain.
  • Kitchen towel, or paper towel, or kitchen paper - paper towel, on a roll. Only with patterns if you have some sort of obsession or spend too much time in the supermarket.
  • Dishcloth, or J-cloth - a cloth, generally damp, used for wiping dishes during washing. And for occasional worktop spills. Required to be blue or green and white gingham pattern by laws of decency.
  • Sponge - yes. Usually with scouring pad on the top.
  • Scourer - green, scratchy flat cloth, used to remove stubborn things from metal pans. Capable of destroying the nice china, non-stick surfaces. Sometimes a brillo pad or other metallic pad instead, or as well if enthusiastic.
  • Bridget brush - plastic-fronded brush with a long handle, for attacking pans, jugs, glasses that are hard to clean with the sponge/scourer; often non-stick friendly. Best ones are pink.
  • Bottle brush - wire-bound brush with radial fronds and a long handle, for poking inside bottles where nothing else fits. White, and for those over 45 only.
  • 2
    +1 for J-Cloth, which of course is a brand name, and proper ones have become increadingly difficult to find. But I've never heard a wasshing-up brush called a "Bridget brush". Is that a family-specific thing? Nov 25, 2014 at 11:58
  • 1
    @MartinMcCallion I'm Irish, but we speak English. I've heard of all of the above bar one. Like yourself I've never heard of a Bridget Brush. Google doesn't seem to recognise it either. There is a Bridget L. Brush on LinkedIn though...
    – Daft
    Nov 25, 2014 at 12:21
  • Your "Bridget brush" is (more) commonly known as just a washing-up brush, surely. And "kitchen towel" may in certain (probably obvious at the time) contexts refer to a hand towel intended for the kitchen.
    – Chris H
    Nov 25, 2014 at 16:22
  • A search on google for me shows up lots of instances of Bridget Brush, including Google Shopping entries. Mostly Addis branded, so perhaps it is specific to them, but I'm fairly sure I bought such a thing under a supermarket's own brand.
    – Phil H
    Nov 25, 2014 at 16:33
  • There's also the term tea cloth Various items connected to the sink sphere dictionary.cambridge.org/topics/kitchen-equipment/…
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 25, 2014 at 17:48


The problem with America is it is so wide spread that we don't always call items by the same name. We have pop, soda, and coke for referring to a carbonated soda depending on where you are from.

I have heard of tea towels all my life but I have heard then called wash clothes, cheese cloths (even if that isn't technically correct), hand towels, and kitchen towels. You might have better luck if you ask them if they carry any kitchen items or items used in the kitchen. It might at least get you in the correct part of the store.

I hope you are having a lovely trip here.


This must be a very regional occurrence to call it a "tea towel" here in the United States. I have lived in California, Arizona, and Connecticut and have NEVER heard it referred to as a tea towel. Washcloth, dishcloth, dish towel, hand towel, kitchen towel, and dishrag are the only ones I have used or heard to it referred to as. If any of the previous posters would kindly put in their state of residence, it would go a long way in figuring out the state by state peculiarities. I have never personally made a distinction between the one used to dry a dish versus the one used to clean, as my family has always used sponges for actually cleaning the dishes so the cloth was always for drying. Now we just use the dishwasher 99% of the time.


I felt the need to chime in here, as I thought there were some interesting responses. Tea towel is most certainly a term used here in the US. They are commonly given as gifts, especially for weddings, and are often hand embroidered with flowers, monograms, etc. A keepsake item. The term has the same usage as British English. However, they may not be as common a souvenir item. If you go into any kitchen store or home decor gift shop, they will most certainly know what you are talking about. On the other hand, a souvenir shop that sells magnets, etc. isn't likely to have them. And if you're at a large retail store (or being attended by a younger person,) it's quite possible they won't know what you're talking about, but most kitchen sections will have some option of linen tea towel, albeit plain.

  • Hi TJF. Welcome to the site. We are a bit different from other sites - please look at The Tour to find out why. One of the ways we are different is that this space is reserved for answers to the question, whereas your post reads more like a comment. Please make posts here specifically answers to the question that stand on their own. Once again, welcome. Sep 25, 2015 at 13:36

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.