Modern Dish Towels: Gorgeous & Tough
Designed and woven by Heather Matthews
Earlier on in my weaving life, I was at a meeting of the Northern Colorado Weaver’s Guild where a wise weaver, showing her beautiful handwoven towels, said, "Weave your dish towels with darker colors and they’ll never stain!" Afterwards, I opened my kitchen drawer at home to see the nest of stained, sorry-looking dish towels. I knew it was time to start making my own! It seemed clear that quality and beauty in an ordinary kitchen towel would contribute to daily life.
That same week, I came across the book Simple Weaves: Over 30 Classic Patterns and Fresh New Styles by Birgitta Bengtsson Björk and Tina Ignell. Bright colors filled the pages, along with fresh perspectives on the use of traditional weave structures to create modern designs for the home. The stunning photography got me itching to weave.
I also perused The Handweaver’s Pattern Directory by Anne Dixon in search of a new weave structure. Summer and winter weave caught my eye: "The name [derives] from blue and white bedcovers woven in this pattern with one side darker than the other. The dark side showing was for the winter when washing could not be done so frequently; the light for summer."
Nowadays, we can wash linens as often as we need to, regardless of season, but the summer and winter weave structure still offers enjoyable possibilities for modern design and lots of variety. To give my towels the modern look I was seeking, I didn’t weave summer and winter in the traditional way, with tabby rows alternating with pattern rows. Instead, I alternated my A and B tabbies after every two pattern rows. This created a bolder pattern that had the modern look I wanted. Likewise, my tabby yarn and pattern yarn are the same size, rather than the traditionally finer tabby and heavier pattern wefts.
I started with Brassard Cotton yarn—recommended for its absorbency and durability—in elegant navy, bold red, and eye-catching turquoise. I threaded my loom with a warp of 5-1/2 yards, enough to sample and also make four towels. Although I followed the weaving instructions for a particular design outlined in Dixon's book, I immediately saw that this structure had the capacity for all sorts of fun shapes and designs; each towel could be completely different. I sampled every combination that came to mind.
Four designs emerged as I wove the actual towels, each conjuring up different feelings and thoughts. The bright, bold stripe yelled, "Notice me!" The checkerboard pattern, presented vertically, evoked a landscape. The other designs had alternating block sizes, their colors interacting with each other in unexpected ways. I introduced a thin strip of white in one of them, just to add some pop.
Finished size: 4 tea towels, each approximately 26 x 16 inches.
Weave structure: summer and winter variation
Number of warp ends: 400 (includes floating selvedges)
Warp length: 5-1/2 yards (includes approximately 1 yard loom waste and plenty of room for sampling)
Width in reed: 20"
PPI: 20 to 24
What You'll Need
Warp: 2 cones (1 lb. each) Brassard Cotton (1680 yds per lb.) – navy
Weft: 1 cone each Brassard Cotton (1680 yds per lb.) – peacock (turquoise) and scarlet (red)
1/4-inch cotton twill tape
4-shaft loom with 100 heddles on each shaft, minimum 24" weaving width and 6 treadles—I used my 36" Schacht Standard Floor Loom
- sewing machine or sewing needles for hemming
Use both cones of navy to wind your warp, winding two yarns together around the warping mill/board at the same time. (Tip: keep a finger between the colors to avoid twisting them.) Wind two sets of 10 inches each—this makes it easier to handle.
- Centering for 10", sley 2 ends per dent in a 10-dent reed. Floating selvedges are a single thread at either edge (sleyed singly in the dent).
- Thread heddles as shown. The general Summer and Winter sequence alternates between 1-3-2-3 (x however wide you want a block to be) and 1-4-2-4 (x same number of times). In my example, I repeated each sequence twice. In other words: 1-3-2-3, 1-3-2-3, 1-4-2-4, 1-4-2-4.
Here are the drafts for three of my four towels. Begin and end each towel by weaving about 1/2" plain weave for hemming later. Use pattern and plain weave wefts as noted in the drawdown for each draft.
Towel 1 Bricky Stripes: Begin with scarlet for the pattern rows and turquoise for the plain weave rows. Follow the color plan in the treadling, then swap colors so that the pattern rows are turquoise and the plain weave rows are red.
As you proceed, the two colors will alternate to create wide stripes in each color for as many stripes as you like, up to 10 each color. If you want the towel to be symmetrical, end on the same color stripe you started with—in this case, red pattern and turquoise plain weave. Weave until your towel is 30" long, including the 1/2-inch plain weave at the end.
Towel 2 Checkers: You can weave this pattern in all red (with a navy tabby) for a single color checkerboard, or change from red to turquoise halfway through (~15"). I wove an extra two picks of plain weave in navy in the middle to discern the two ends.
Weave until your towel is 30" long, including the 1/2-inch plain weave at the end.
Towel 3: Block Stripes weaving draft
Towel 3: Block Stripes detail
Towel 4 Mash-up: The fourth design is simply improvisation, using a mixture of the other three designs. If you have 8 treadles, you can combine the tie-ups to do it all. If you have just 6 treadles, it is not that much work to drop the #3 shaft on treadles 1 and 2 for the stripe sections, then quickly put them back for the checkers or blocks. Experiment with using just two colors or all three, or even adding additional colors.
After finishing your weaving, take the yardage off the loom and secure each end by stitching along the width using a plain or zigzag stitch on a sewing machine. Also sew two lines of stitching at the beginning/end of each individual towel.
Using scissors, cut the yardage into four pieces, cutting in between the stitch lines you sewed earlier. Be careful not to cut the stitch lines.
Machine wash the four towels with mild detergent and whatever temperature you’d use in a normal wash. Tumble dry. This will cause them to become much less rigid. They will also shrink!
Trim any excessive fringe and threads. Press the cloth with a hot iron and turn the two ends over to hem. Under the hem of one side, insert a loop of cotton twill tape to create a hanger for the dishtowel. Stitch hem and twill tape loop in place with the sewing machine.
Once the towels were woven, washed, and hemmed, I wanted to put them to a true test in a busy family kitchen. That’s where my friend and her family came in. I asked her to use it like any normal dish towel, to not give it any special treatment. My goal was to test how well the towel would hold up in a busy family kitchen. She agreed to the experiment and used it at home for seven months. Her husband, three young children, and the dog also participated. The towel served not only as daily dish towel, but also as cape, wig, blanket, and yoga mat.
The husband, known for constantly leaving dish towels on the backs of chairs or over his shoulder, got away with this habit more often with this dish towel. "I forgave him because the towel is so gorgeous," my friend confided. The youngest child, who loves playing with dish towels, quickly made this one his favorite.
The best surprise was that after seven months of hard use, their dish towel still looked brand new. "It doesn’t show the dirt and stains that are inevitably on it!" said my friend. "It holds the spills, the remnants of cooking, and the memory of each and every meal eaten in our kitchen."
I asked if she ever hesitated to reach for this towel: some might say it was too beautiful to use. She responded, "With three kids, I can’t imagine having things in our home that are not used. The beauty is the use! The towel is still just as aesthetically beautiful even after daily use, weekly laundry, and so many hands touching it."
These days when I open my own kitchen drawer of dish towels, a pleasant mix of design, quality, and color greets me. Every time I hang one of these handwoven dish towels on the oven door, the past, present, and future seem to come together in my modern kitchen.
Dixon, Anne. The Handweaver’s Pattern Directory. Interweave, 2007.
Heather Matthews is an artist and weaver in Fort Collins, CO. She makes a lot of dish towels! She is a graduate of Colorado State University's art program and a member of the Northern Colorado Weaver's Guild. Her favorite weaving structure is doubleweave. Alongside writing, reading, and talking about art, she also enjoys travel and mountain biking.
Find out more at these links!
© 2021 Schacht Spindle Company