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The humble dish towel can be a pretty addition to any kitchen

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dish towels are the unsung heroes of the household.

Not only can they be gorgeous with colorful intricate details, but they also can clean up messes large and small. Bambi Sanchez of Lake Lotawana, Mo., uses hers for anything from drying glasses to wiping off the muddy paws of her boxer, Sadie, and peekapoo, Simon. Dish towels also are unofficial tools in her first-aid kit.

“When my daughter fell off the deck, I used one as a sling for her arm until we got to the hospital,” Sanchez says. “As they become heavily used, they become part of my car-washing box.”

Using her trusty embroidery sewing machine, Sanchez embellishes dish towels as gifts. She designs traditional monograms for couples, chef patterns for avid cooks and equestrian motifs for her own home.

“Dish towels are great for expressing who you are and personalizing the kitchen,” Sanchez says. “They’re inexpensive, too.”

Sanchez uses the classic white flour sack towels, starting at $2.95 a piece, from Pryde’s Old Westport in Kansas City. The kitchen store receives a new shipment of dish towels every two weeks, says owner Louise Meyers, because they’re so popular.

This year at market, Meyers saw lots of dish towels in yellows and blues, especially cobalt and robin’s egg. A rainbow variety of dish towel is on display in the center of the store. Everything from dressy jacquards to practical terrycloth is stacked four shelves high in a 7-foot-long wooden case.

Inspired by her mother-in-law’s collection of fine dish towels, EllynAnne Geisel of Pueblo, Colo., wrote “The Kitchen Linens Book” (Andrews McMeel, $20), available in March. An envelope attached in the back of the book includes Butterick transfer patterns from 1945 of dancing veggies and kitchen utensils that can be used for dish towels.

Geisel admires how women of generations past made the humble cleaning utensils so pretty by artfully stitching motifs and trimming them with tatted lace. She’s bought other vintage dish towels at estate sales and thrift stores, treasuring them by using them as napkins and table runners and displaying them in a glass-front cabinet.

“Embroidered towels are evidence that the woman who made them was here,” says Geisel, who also has written two books about aprons. “When a family lets a dish towel go, she becomes part of my family.”

Geisel is forever encouraging others to use dish towels instead of hiding them in drawers because they think the linens are too precious to use. Her philosophy: Stains are part of the cloth’s life story. She also uses dish towels as gift wrap and in place of paper towels to keep them out of the landfill.

“Even when your home is a wreck, you can just take a lovely, brightly colored cotton dish towel and hang it over the sink or from a cabinet or oven handle,” Geisel says. “This small piece of fabric anchors the space, giving a kitchen a sense of focus and orderliness I find uplifting.”

THE RIGHT TOWEL FOR THE RIGHT JOB DISH-TOWEL RESOURCES VINTAGE TOWELS

Linen: Best for drying glasses lint-free. Machine wash cold on the gentle cycle. Tumble dry low or line dry. No fabric softeners.

Polyester microfiber: Best for mopping up spills. Machine wash warm with like colors. Tumble dry low. No bleach or fabric softeners.

Cotton: Best for drying hands and dishes. Machine wash cold on the gentle cycle. Tumble dry low or line dry if vintage. No fabric softeners.

Embellished: Applique, crochet and pompoms are a few of the old-fashioned details on this store’s towels (starting at $14). Anthropologie, www.anthropologie.com, 800-309-2500.

French-made jacquard: With kings, poems and cooking utensils, these woven cottons towels are colorful table decor and bread-basket liners ($22). QuelObjet, www.quelobjet.com, 877-762-4499

Modern: For those who like graphic prints, there are 100 percent cotton towels by Tikoli ($9.50). Velocity Art and Design, www.velocityartanddesign.com, 866-781-9494

• Do not use bleach (including sun bleaching) on delicate linens.

• To avoid breaking fabric fibers, do not wring wet or damp linens.

• If a bit of linen is too fragile or delicate to use, frame it.

Source: “The Kitchen Linens Book” by EllynAnne Geisel ($20, Andrews McMeel)

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