When tea was first introduced to Britain it was served in bowls, following the custom of the Chinese. Later, elaborate tea services were being used and, as the servants were heavy-handed, the mistress herself would take charge of supervising the washing of the china after entertaining. In some cases she would do it herself. A bowl of water would be brought to her in the parlor or the morning room, along with a small drying cloth. To begin with, it was a special piece of linen which was often woven by a local spinster, but hand-hemmed by the housemaids as they sat around in their quarters after their main duties were over. The beautiful Wedgwood and Coalport china warranted this special treatment; it was a prized possession in those early days.
Mass-made tea towels were introduced during the Industrial Revolution and their popularity spread by marketing them through the new department stores, which became all the rage. To begin with these "kitchen and glass cloths" had the familiar blue and red band across the centre. Much later these typical drying cloths gave way to the illustrated versions. Irish linen was considered the best as it was most absorbent and very strong. (From The Etiquette of an English Tea by Beryl Peters)
Here are just a few of my linen tea towels. I tend to use them as decoration on a tea tray or tea table. I don't think I could bear to use them as a dish towel!