The Things We Treasure

Why I’ve Spent 15 Years Stocking Up These French Kitchen Towels

I used to travel to find them—now they go everywhere I go.

February  6, 2020
Photo by Drue Wagner

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.


I carry my kitchen towels wherever I go. Well, at least one or two of them. Certainly to any place where I know I’m going to be cooking, but also to picnics, long car trips, even on planes—it’s amazing how handy they are when you have to eat on the fly. And when I was commuting to an office, there was always one tucked into my lunchbox.

My love for them started with a vintage towel my husband Bob and I found at a Christmas market in a tiny village in France in 2006. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip, panacea for the sadness over losing both of our dogs that year. We had just arrived on an overnight flight from New York, and were dizzy from lack of sleep and desperate for coffee. In a car, and en route to Burgundy, Barbizon had seemed as good a place as any for a refreshment stop.

In the early 1800s, Barbizon was home to a group of painters later dubbed the Barbizon School. One of the founders, Jean-Françoise Millet, painted his famous The Gleaners near here in 1857, depicting three peasant women in a field picking up stray stalks of wheat after the harvest.

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“A beautiful kitchen towel is a memory for us and a treasure that can be shared with others, too.”
— Natasha
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We found our coffee on Grande Rue, watching as people unloaded vans and set up stalls for a holiday market all along a narrow street—and decided to stay on. Later, at the market, we reluctantly passed on the cheese and charcuterie (with no access to refrigeration until later on in our trip) but had no hesitation when our eyes fell on a display of beautiful vintage torchon (kitchen towels). The one that caught my eye was made of linen from the Vosges mountains, and like all linen, I already imagined it getting softer and more absorbent over time. I happily handed over 3 Euros and tucked it into my shoulder bag.

That towel was so delightful that from that day on, we never walked through a French street market or vide grenier (a yard sale, but literally meaning “empty the attic”) without looking for torchons. Now it is the first thing we try to hunt down on our annual Christmas visits.

The kitchen towels became an easy and tactile way to have a little bit of France at home with us through the rest of the year. And because we actually put them to use in our travels—the kitchens in the places we rent can often be woefully undersupplied—they come further imbued with memories of meals together in some of our favorite countries.

Happily, you don’t have to be at a rural market to hunt them down. Many vintage towels I’ve loved have come from Au Petit Bonheur La Chance, a small shop on Rue Saint Paul in Paris, packed so densely with vintage torchons and other linens, bowls, toleware and paper goods that you could easily spend hours digging through it all.

The kitchen towels became an easy and tactile way to have a little bit of France at home with us through the rest of the year. And because we actually put them to use in our travels, they come imbued with memories of meals together in some of our favorite countries.

My affections, however, are not exclusively for vintage towels. Other French favorites have come to us new. One particular beauty, in purple and brown jacquard, came from the Musée des Tissus (Textile Museum) in Lyon. Lyon was a center of silk working since 1466 when King Louis XI decided to compete with the prominent Italian silk markets in Florence, Venice, and Lucca. The silk workers of Lyon, known as Canuts, are not only legendary for their weaving, but they have a cheese dip named after them, Cervelle de Canut, served in several Lyonnaise restaurants throughout France.

Last year, we picked up a new torchon in Normandy. As we stood in line at the airport on our way home, a customs agent came over to inspect my carry-on. “Have you been in Normandy?” she asked in accented English. She's spotted the contraband butter. No, the Camembert, I thought. Instead, she pointed at the towel that I had wrapped over the top of my tote’s contents for extra protection. “This is a very typical Norman textile,” she said as she picked it up for further inspection. She carefully put it back in the bag and moved on. Ironically, she was wrong: although we did buy it in Normandy, this torchon was from the Basque country. But one other thing I have learned about the French is you don’t contradict them—especially at airport security.

Photo by Gary Schiro
Photo by Gary Schiro

Of all our new torchons, the craziest has to be the one we went on an hour-long hunting expedition to find. We were renting a gîte in Puligny-Montrachet that not only had a dreamy kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, but a charming cotton towel we fell hard for. It was hanging on the door of the wall oven, with red window-pane checks, yellow, blue, and green stripes and a wide band on all four sides woven to spell out Bon Appetit. On the lower half of the towel, printed in black, was the name and address of a butcher shop on the other side of Burgundy. A road trip became inevitable. The shop owner, meanwhile, looked at us like we were crazy to come all that way for a towel, but seemed touched. She gave it to us as a gift.

I’m deeply attached to all of these towels and can’t imagine being without them. After years of stock-piling them, I love knowing I can always reach for a dry, clean one no matter how mountainous the pile of pots and pans. But because we gathered them from memorable and meaningful places, it became easy to be overly cautious about their use. For a long time, they were relegated to just wash-up duties. But as my concerns about waste and the environment mounted in the last decade, I realized I could put these towels to work in far more situations than I had before. They are perfectly capable of cradling cleaned green beans in the vegetable bin, wiping down the cutting board, and the odd spill.

Now I see the stains as an emblem of honor, a merit badge for lots of home cooking. Occasionally, one will become so raggedy and frayed that I’ll reluctantly toss it. But that only makes room for another one from a more recent adventure. By pressing these beauties into service, I not only get to bask in lovely memories, but also know that I’m saving both money and trees.

What's the most memorable thing you've picked up on your travels? Tell us in the comments!

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A writer, a cook, an arts consultant and a Francophile.

18 Comments

Pat E. August 16, 2020
I learned from m French Canadian mother what a joy it is to collect lovely dish towels from your travels. I have many languishing in drawers because they are “too pretty to use”. This article has inspired me to get them out and put them to work. What on earth am I waiting for??
 
Javaid I. August 14, 2020
I am manufacturer of kitchen towel since 1954
Any body interested in buying can contact us on. [email protected]
 
Claudia T. February 26, 2020
I love to get kitchen towels as a souvenir as well. Many aren't tough French linens but thin little things- the towels that are too thin for kitchen use, or almost-too-pretty, are used as hand towels in the bathroom. I hate the feeling of wiping your hands on a damp hand towel, and tea towels dry so much faster. As new ones wear down and start to get grody they are downgraded to kitchen towels.
 
mnr_t February 17, 2020
I have a beautiful pair of Christmas kitchen towels from Upim in Florence, bought when my sister studied there in the early 80s I love checking out dime stores when I travel!! Such swell memories❤️
 
gothicgourdgirl February 17, 2020
My family is all Belgian. As a kid, when family and friends visited my grandparents in Canada (we were lucky to live next door) they invariably brought two things, and I mean every Belgian, and every trip-knives and chocolate.
They are small Little pairing knives, for peeling potatoes, for example, with plain wooden handles, that you just can’t get here. Belgian chocolate is a given (and not that crappy Godiva, although many many years ago it was good). When going through my grandmothers’ estate things, and more recently, my aunt, there was a scramble to see who could get the knives. We use them so often, and hard-core (in the dishwasher *gasp*) that they don’t last a lifetime, but seem to get sharper as time passes.
“Outsiders” always thought it weird that we were given knives as gifts. They were coveted reminders of our culture, our homeland, that we just can’t get. And now with flight security, alas, the treasured Flemish knives in the suitcases are a thing of the past.
And, my last one recently broke so I don’t know what to do, since they can’t be shipped, I don’t think.
 
Author Comment
Gary S. February 20, 2020
You might do a little poking around on the internet - someone may indeed be shipping them, or has i ported them for US distribution. As to traveling with knives, as long as they are in checked luggage you'll be fine. In fact, it is our recent practice to always bring back one of the terrific bread knives from Poilane. We buy it to use while in Paris (it seems such a shame to be in the land of beautiful bread and have a lousy knife that rips it apart...) and then bring it home in the checked luggage and gift it to someone sometime that year.
 
gothicgourdgirl February 20, 2020
Really? That is good to know, and I agree! :) Thank you.
 
BARBARA M. February 16, 2020
I purchased my first linen towel woven in France in a small kitchen store in Florida. I love it. It brings back memories of a wonderful holiday. Thank you for this story. I started weaving in my late 50's and while I am not going to ever be an accomplished weaver I look at things like woven kitchen towels in a new way. I study the weave patterns, anaylyze the weft and warp and learn from the design and colour ways. I appreciate that you posted the photos because I am going to try some of those patterns - and use some of the same colours. Colour plagarism I call it. Most of the photos show towels that appear to be a plain weave. So they are not fancy but lovely and functional. Can you tell me: are they all linen fibre or are some cotton or a cotton linen blend?
 
Author Comment
Gary S. February 17, 2020
My towels are a mix of linen, linen/cotton and all cotton. They are mostly plain weave, though I found a woman at a famer’s market who wove beautiful, colorful checked towels. They were pricey, but sturdy, and very good looking.
 
Caroline February 16, 2020
What a sweet article! When I first moved to the US in the 80s my mother used to send me packages of torchons every year because I could never find anything of similar quality here. There is something about French kitchen towels that makes them uniquely resistant to hundreds of washes. Tip: real linen torchons can withstand boiling temperatures and come out beautiful. I inherited some linen tablecloths made by my great grandfather (a weaver) that still look new today!
 
Author Comment
Gary S. February 17, 2020
Thanks for the linen tip! If any of my torchon get too full of stains I’ve found a good overnight soak in Borax seems to brighten them considerably.
 
Kitchamajig February 12, 2020
I loved this story!
 
WnnaBTrvlWrtr February 11, 2020
I too treasure kitchen towels picked up during my travels. My kitchen has reminders of visits to France, Italy, Spain, Guatemala and Tasmania hanging from the towel bars. They are easy to pack and extras make great gifts. So glad to know others share my souvenir strategy!
 
Natasha February 10, 2020
Thank you, Gary, for the fabulous article. My husband and I regularly buy linens (dish towels, table runners, etc.) when we visit his family in France, particularly at the farmers' markets in Provence such as Aix-en-Provence, Apt in the Luberon, etc. The towels are high quality, have beautiful designs and rich, vibrant colors, often featuring motifs like regional foods and nature (olives, olive trees, olive presses, lavender, sunflowers), or simple regional recipes printed on them with related food motifs (aubergine, anchovies or other fish), and are generally very reasonably priced. Many of the market sellers offer progressively lower prices for buying sets of say 3, 5 or 10 towels. We stock up on such dish towels and offer them throughout the year as small gifts to loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, etc. Wrapped around a bottle of wine and tied with a twine bow, they make a great, re-usable, practical gift wrap, too. We have done this for many years and people love them and use them. A beautiful kitchen towel is a memory for us and a treasure that can be shared with others, too.
 
Annabelle February 8, 2020
More towel pictures!
 
Arati M. February 9, 2020
Just got a couple more up for you, Annabelle! We might all have to ask Gary for a full reveal :)
 
DARIGOL1717 February 6, 2020
Hey , good post. we've great deals in our cooking materials specially on cuece pastas.if you want to get super discounts visit us in https://mercahosteleria.com/cuece-pastas-26
 
Jill D. February 6, 2020
When I travel I purchase Christmas ornaments or other trinkets I use as holiday ornaments. They are small and every year as I decorate I reminisce about all of the wonderful journeys. I love your daily reminder of your travels through the practicality and beauty of a dishtowel.