For starters, it's the unsung hero of the Southern household.

If your house is anything like mine, you probably have a host of tea towels lying around: There's one by the kitchen sink, another hanging in the powder room, and five more tucked away in a drawer, ready to rotate in when the others need to be thrown in the wash.

But what actually makes a tea towel a tea towel, and why are they called tea towels in the first place?

Clean kitchen towels stacked in a basket on the basket, selective focus
Credit: Ann_Zhuravleva/Getty Images

The main difference comes down to the material: Unlike your run-of-the-mill, super-absorbent bath or hand towels, tea towels are generally flat-woven from linen or cotton, rather than made of a higher-pile material like terry cloth, so as not to leave lint or streaks behind.

While tea towels are nearly ubiquitous these days, the tea towel's beginnings were far from humble. It's thought that they first became popular in 18th century England, when textiles became more easily accessible. Often made from soft linen, tea towels were a favorite accessory amongst the upper echelons of English society, as the ladies of the house used them during tea service and for drying cherished china. (This was apparently one of the jobs they didn't pass off to servants, as they didn't want to risk any broken saucers. The horror!) The linen tea towels were also a way for women to show off their decorative stitching skills, as they would embroider them to coordinate with the rest of their table linens.

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and mass production in the 19th century, tea towels, like many things, became more widely available across the pond too. That they could be made easily from cotton also democratized the dish-drying tool; and soon, tea towels moved from a flashy sign of luxury and wealth to a regular workhorse.

Tea towels moved further into the American household vernacular with the arrival of the Great Depression, as quick-thinking homemakers would recycle flour sacks to embroider and use as tea towels. Flour companies wised up and started packaging their flour in patterned sacks, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, of course, you don't have to get through a bag of White Lily to snag a new tea towel; you can find them just about anywhere, from airport souvenir shops to your neighborhood grocery.

Yes, we've determined that tea towels are a tried and true workhorse, but you can also turn them into family heirlooms, with a little help from a treasured hand-me-down recipe. Here's why we love this unique gift idea.