When sorting through the things at my parent’s house recently, my sister and I came across a plastic storage tote filled with embroidered vintage tea towels! It felt like we had just found a hidden treasure!
Inside was a little note in my mom’s handwriting, stating that the towels had been embroidered by her mother and her two grandmothers. Unfortunately, there was no way of differentiating who made each one, but I was still thrilled to have these little pieces of vintage history connected to my grandmother and great-grandmothers. ❤️
They clearly had been packed in the box for a long time. Most likely my grandmother inherited them when my great-grandmothers died, and then my mom ended up with them all after my grandma died. Now they are split between my sister and me.
Some History of Vintage Flour Sack Towels
Shortly after the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1800s, cotton sacks replaced barrels for flour storage and shipping. It wasn’t long before clever housewives noticed their absorbent and lint-free qualities, and started repurposing them for kitchen towels.
The arrival of the Great Depression in the 1930s forced families to use whatever resources they could in creative ways. The flour sack represented a source of cheap cloth, and large companies such as General Mills started packaging flour, sugar, and other foods into colorful cloth sacks that could be recycled. The companies even used washable ink for their logos and printed information, so that it would wash away and leave a piece of cloth that could be utilized for other purposes around the home.
It was during this time period of the 1930s-1960’s, that embroidered tea towels on flour sacks became quite popular. Wanting a stake in the flour sack market, sewing companies like McCall’s, Simplicity, and Aunt Martha’s began manufacturing iron-on transfers that were simple, and could be stitched quickly and easily to make a lovely, personalized tea towels to brighten up the kitchen.
By the 1950s, manufacturers had found a cheaper way to package their products–paper–and the flour sack tea towel started to become less common.
If you’re lucky, you may inherit some that were hand-stitched by a family member, making them even more special. But if not, I frequently see them for sale in flea markets and antique shops for only a couple of dollars each. They are still practical for use around the house, but even more so for adding a touch of nostalgia to your kitchen decor.
Aunt Martha’s Iron-On Patterns
Also in my mom’s house, I discovered these vintage Aunt Martha’s iron-on patterns. None of these are for the particular towels that I have, but I was able to research the Aunt Martha’s patterns to help me determine the approximate age of my towels, based on when the patterns were sold.
I mean, look how cute these vintage patterns are! And 15 cents! Can you buy anything for 15 cents anymore?
My Colonial Girl Gardening Day towel is what I believe to be the oldest one I have. The pattern was originally published about 1940, and the towel it’s on still shows a very faint label from whatever kind of sack it originally was.
Based on the age, my guess is that it was made by one of my great-grandmothers. I love looking at this and imagining her working on it stitch by stitch. It makes me laugh, because whomever made these towels, was clearly very free-wheeling with the color choices. Many of the towels have some interesting choices– I mean, this particular one has yellow water coming out of the watering can. 🤣
This sweet towel has been well-used, but I still love it. Not only do I like thinking about one of my great-grandmothers stitching it, I think of her using it for all her kitchen chores, something like 80 years ago. 💕
And do you know what’s so cool? You can still purchase Aunt Martha’s patterns! Places like ebay and Etsy have vintage ones, but several of the popular old-fashioned patterns are now being reprinted, and you can get them on Amazon. I’m seriously thinking about buying this Colonial Girl pattern and making the entire set. How cool would that be to add my own handiwork to this collection, before passing them on to my own daughter? ❤️
Eight Vegetable Motifs
This vegetable motif towel appears to be one of the newer ones of my collection. It’s embroidered on a tea towel, rather than a flour sack, and is in better condition.
This pattern was originally published in 1960, so I’m wondering if maybe my grandmother made this one? I have no way of knowing for sure, but this one is clearly newer than many of the others.
I enjoyed using this one lightly (just for drying my hands) when I made my Easy Refrigerator Pickles a few weeks ago. It was fun to use some of my mother’s, grandmother’s and great-grandmothers’ things while I worked. It was almost like spending time with them in the kitchen. ❤️
Stitched-in Fabric Pieces
Some of my inherited towels have stitched-in fabric pieces, which I haven’t been able to learn much about. If you have knowledge on the patterns or the practice of creating these types of tea towels, I’d love to hear from you!
This towel is also on an old flour sack. By hunting around online, I was able to find this Vogart pattern on ebay that it came from, but that’s about all I know.
I also have this adorable rooster, and the SILVER towels, but haven’t located their patterns yet.
Cleaning Your Vintage Flour Sack Towels
My towels were in pretty rough shape when I brought them home. They had been stored in my mom’s basement for many years, and who knows how long in my grandmother’s/great-grandmothers’ before that.
They smelled musty, and had yellowed quite a bit.
Because they are so old, and hand-stitched, there was no way I was putting them in the washing machine. Instead, I filled up the sink in my laundry room with very hot water, and used my go-to stain remover– OxiClean.
I soaked all of the towels in here overnight, and then rinsed gently by hand in cool water.
This made a big difference, but they still weren’t quite as white as I had hoped. So I refilled the sink with hot water, and this time dropped in one of these OxiClean White Revive Pods. I always use these pods on my white towels and sheets, and it keeps them such a nice, bright white color, so I figured it would help with these towels as well.
Again, I let them soak for several hours, before rinsing gently under cold running water.
I let as much of the water drip out as possible, before spreading each tea towel out on a thick bath towel, and patting out more of the water. I was careful not to wring or tug on the fabric too much, because of their age, and because I wanted to protect that precious hand-stitching.
Finally, I took the towels outside in the warm summer sun and hung them to dry. The sun has great natural whitening effects, too! Since they are so thin, they dried quickly.
I was so pleased with the outcome. Although not perfect, they were vastly improved and now have a wonderful scent from the combination of detergent and fresh air.
Keeping Them Out Where They Can Be Appreciated
After all that hard work of bringing these towels back to life, there was no way I was going to pack them back in a box to be stored away for years.
I wouldn’t use these towels to do the “heavy lifting” in my kitchen, but they certainly look beautiful hanging on my stove…
And they work perfectly for taking lovely blog photos…
I love how they add charm and nostalgia to my kitchen. I wonder what my great-grandmothers would think about these little pieces of their handiwork from so long ago, still being used and loved so many years later? 💕
Flea Markets & Antique Stores
I see handmade vintage towels and linens every time I’m in a flea market or antique mall. On some level, it makes me a bit sad, because I imagine they come from estate sales, where families have gone through the things of their deceased loved ones, and nobody saw any value in keeping these “old” towels.
When I look at them, I see the care and love these women put into stitching each one by hand, and wish I could buy them all and put them back into service again.
If you haven’t been fortunate enough to inherit any vintage linens that were lovingly made by your own relatives, there’s still value in visiting some antique shops in your area and picking up a few. They will certainly add to the vintage charm and farmhouse style of your modern-day kitchen, while at the same time serve as a way to honor these hard-working ladies of days-gone-by.
PS. If you have expert knowledge of vintage flour sack tea towels, I’d love to hear from you!
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