Actually it's both!  According to Merriam-Webster a tea towel is "a cloth for drying dishes".   Sounds like a dish towel, right?  They are both the same size and shape. However there is one difference - technically tea towels are made from linen or cotton cloth and never terry cloth.  If a towel is made from terry, then it is a dish towel.  

Traditionally, tea towels were utilized during tea service, wrapped around tea pots to keep tea warm, as a cover for baked goods and to dry fine china.  Ladies would also embroider them, either presenting them as gifts or creating a family heirloom.  According to Radical Tea Towel, Vincent Van Gogh may have used tea towels and table cloths as a replacement canvas for more than one painting!

Today, the tea towel can be used in a variety of ways.  Although not as absorbent as the terry cloth dish towel, the tea towel has many purposes beyond drying dishes.  Below are just a few of the many uses of these kitchen staples.

*As gift wrap:  The next time you need a hostess gift, wrap a tea towel around bread (baguette cut in half, banana bread, zucchini bread, etc), securing it with a ribbon. You could also fold it around a candle, bottle of olive oil or bottle of wine. 

*Kitchen helper: Use a tea towel to stabilize a cutting board or mixing bowl, dry greens, as a trivet, cover rising bread dough, keep baked goods warm, store greens in the refrigerator and of course as a tea cozy.  

*As decor:  These towels just look great and add a pop of color and style hanging in your kitchen or even as hand towels in a guest bath.  Another use is to fold them and use as napkins or placemats.

*Line drawers and cabinets:  Instead of using shelf liner, the tea towel can be used to line your pantry and also in produce drawers in the fridge.

Those are just a few ideas for the versatile tea towel.  We hope you find them useful.  Of course, you can just keep it basic and use them to dry your dishes!