A SIMPLE LOW-TECH MAKER PROJECTJust in Time for Holiday Gifts! You can get as fancy (calling them “tea towels”) or as plain as you want with this gift, but the person who receives these towels is sure to love them as long as they are made from 100% cotton or linen.  Poly fabrics simply won’t do as they are not absorbent. 

Tea towels reached the height of their class and fame in the 18th century when fancy ladies with time on their hands would embroider the towels, creating beautiful heirlooms to be passed down through the generations.  Tea towels were a part of every young girl’s marriage chest.  While the American dish towel originated from the prudent repurposing of used cotton feed sacks, the English versions were made from pure linen to avoid scratching delicate china and glassware.

For this maker project, you’ll need enough pre-washed fabric to make two cup towels. (They always come in pairs, people expect it, don’t cha know?) The size I prefer is 20 inches x 30 inches each towel.  You’ll also need some contrasting 100% cotton fabric to use for your design.  Usually I purchase one yard of 100% cotton unbleached muslin for the towel itself and then use fabric scraps on hand for the trim.


  • 2 pieces (20 x 30 inches) pre-washed unbleached muslin 100% cotton
  • An assortment of pre-washed contrasting cotton fabric pieces
  • Trim if you want (fringe, ribbon, etc.—all prewashed)
  • Stamps and fabric ink (also optional)
  • Thread
  • Batting if you also want to make a matching potholder (a 12-inch square from an old blanket will do.)


  • Needle (You can make your gift entirely by hand.  These towels are especially charming.)
  • Sewing Machine (much faster)
  • Iron
  • About 10 straight pins
  • Scissors
  • Measuring tape

I. Create the blank towels.

1.  Measure and cut all the 20 x 30-inch towels you plan to make.  [This session, I plan to make 8 towels (four pair) and one extra in case I mess one up.

2.  Iron all these pieces by folding 1/2 inch around the edge of each towel and pressing down as you go.

3.  Then fold again 1/2 an inch.  The finished towel will be 18 inches wide and 29 inches long.  You may prefer different dimensions for your towel—go for it.

4.  Fold the towels over the back of a chair so they don’t get wrinkled.
Note:  if you like to feel useful while watching useless TV, you can hand sew the edges while you watch TV.

II. Design the towels, pair at a time.
There are no rules here.  I prefer to have the pair matched in some way.  I usually have one towel that is a solid color—often the unbleached muslin—and another towel a pattern.  Then I use some fabric from each towel on the other towel.  Sometimes I simply sew a border of the patterned fabric onto the solid fabric towel.  I may add further interest by using a stamp and fabric ink.  For the patterned towel I can use swatch from the muslin, or I might use another solid color 100% cotton scrap and stamp it with the same stamp I used on the other towel.  Most often I use roosters.

If you want to get REALLY fancy: 

1. Cut two 12-inch (approximate) squares (one from your solid fabric and
one from the printed fabric).
2. Put the two squares together with the outsides facing each other.
3. Lay a 12-inch square of batting on top, or cut a 12-inch square from an
old blanket.
4. Put a 12-inch square of unbleached muslin on top of that.
5. Pin the piece altogether with straight pins.
Make a loop for hanging the potholder.
– Cut a strip of fabric 2 inches wide and 5 ½  inches long.
– Fold the strip in half lengthwise and press.
– Fold the edges in to the center and press.
6. Sew along the edge and set this piece aside for now.
7. Sew around the edges of the 12-inch square with about a ½ inch seam.  Note:  When you arrive to the fourth side only sew about 1/3 of the way as you want to leave an opening to turn it right-side out.
8. Turn the potholder right side out.
9. Turn the open part in ½ an inch and press.
10.  Fold the strip you made for the loop in half.
11.  Stick it in near the corner of the open part and pin or baste in place.
!2.  Top stitch the open part closed.
13. Sew two diagonal lines from corner to corner.  If you like, you can also
top stitch all around the edges of your potholder for a fancier look.
14. VOILA! You are finished!  Now you have a matching set of cup towels
and a potholder.
Of course, if you know how to silk-screen, or have some stencils, this is a great opportunity for that.  Here are a couple of my favorites I found on a Pinterest site. Dish towels like this often sell for up to $15 each in boutique shops.

Below are three dish towels I finished today.


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