Kitchen linens are intended to be functional rather than decorative, but they are essential items – and even those who mainly supply bed, table and other linens to hotels and restaurants will include kitchen linens in their packages to provide a full offering to the customer.

Hotels and restaurants often see these linens – including tea towels, kitchen cloths, glass cloths, waiters’ cloths and bar cloths – as cheap commodity items and often use them to mop up spills, retrieve dishes from the oven and other jobs for which they were not designed.

Price is being driven down, but the cost to the laundries that provide kitchen linen rental services is rising as a result of the need for heavier-duty cleaning and shortening product lifespans.

“Kitchen linen is often an afterthought in many people’s minds, especially when abuse of this product by the end user has traditionally been very high,” says Mark Rue from Universal Towel Company (UTC), one of the few companies that specialises in the supply of kitchen linen. “However, without it, many textile rental contracts cannot be installed completely – and its absence often results in the abuse of table linen or serviettes as replacement products are sought.”

The need for customers to be educated about which cloths should be used for which purposes is undisputed. Both suppliers and textile rental companies struggle against the problems of misused linen, particularly as the cost of buying a table napkin can be more than double the cost of a tea towel. It is often a losing battle, as towels and cloths arrive into the laundry badly stained, burnt or covered in mildew.

Staining is a major problem and to combat it laundries often use a heavy-duty wash. Matt Threlfall from Blackburn-based Tower Linen says the company puts all kitchen linens through a 95C wash. Ordinary detergent is used, but sodium hypochlorite is added to get rid of the stains, rather than hydrogen peroxide which is used on other linens.

This is much harder on the fabrics themselves and can lead to the fabric deteriorating but, Threlfall says, they should still have a life of around 50 washes – if it weren’t for the abuse they receive in the kitchens. Although washing can remove most of the stains, eventually the staining becomes so bad that the cloths cannot be used.

In addition, if they have been left lying around damp, especially if they are soaked with wine or grease, they can arrive in the laundry covered in mildew – and this is quite common.

If it is only one to two days’ growth, it will come clean in the kitchen linens wash. Once it gets to a week, the textiles are beyond repair and have to be thrown out.

It is because of the treatment kitchen linen receives in many, though not all, hotel, restaurant and pub kitchens, that textile rental companies are pressing suppliers for lower quality, cheaper products.

However, as Threlfall stresses, the quality still has to be good enough to do the job properly.

These days setting up the laundry processes, as well as the detergent and chemicals to use, is part of the service provided by detergent suppliers. “The days of just selling detergent are long gone,” says Tony Culling from Christeyns. To deal with the kitchen linens, or “kitchen rubbers” as they are referred to in the detergent industry, Cullings says higher levels of detergents and bleach are used.

To clean heavily-soiled items in a washer-extractor, he may advise adding an extra wash cycle to the two or three already applied.

Christeyns has moved away from using sodium hypochlorite on kitchen linens, except maybe where they are badly stained with food dyes. Instead he advises his customers to use hydrogen peroxide or peracetic acid-based products, which are sufficient to deal with most kitchen linen soiling, such as fat, grease or protein.

Hilden’s laundry advisor Jonathan Mitcham says that as the laundry process is so heavy, the rate of deterioration also rests on the skill of the launderer. If the launderer doesn’t know what he or she is doing they can accelerate the damage. Corners are often cut to speed up the process, he says. “It is better these days, however, with computer-controlled dosing rates, so in theory products should last longer,” he adds – although this can have its downfalls if those controlling the process don’t understand it.

According to Mitcham: “Wash-house men aren’t the chemists they used to be. Some set the process to the middle level to cover everything, so you may get a higher level of returns for re-washing, which increases the number of washes – and leads to more deterioration.”

Hilden supplies kitchen linen for a range of sectors, including bespoke name-woven linens and the more popular, less expensive products. All are 100% cotton.

Two trends

According to Mark Lockwood, Hilden sales director, there are two trends in the market today – one is the drive to cheaper items, while the other is increased demand for more bespoke name-woven products, particularly in the hotel sector. While price is still an issue with branded linens, they are necessarily somewhat more expensive and better quality.

Hilden recently launched its Kitchen Essentials line of kitchen linens. The 100% cotton range includes a kitchen cloth, glass cloth, super-dry tea towel, waiters’ cloth and an oven cloth. While still trying to maintain the quality of the product, the range has been designed to appeal to the “mass market” – the lower end of the market, Lockwood says.

The kitchen linens market has really not changed much over the past ten years. With prices so low and abuse of kitchen linens so high, there is little incentive to develop innovative products.

Strong, durable, cheap

The emphasis is on functionality rather than appearance, says Gillian Saxon from Tonrose. “Kitchen linen is seen as a disposable item,” she adds. “What our customers want is something that is strong, durable and cheap.” For Tonrose, kitchen linen is an ancillary line, complementing its main table and bed linen business for hotels and restaurants.

As with other suppliers, Tonrose’s kitchen linen products – kitchen cloths, oven cloths, tea towels and glass cloths – are all 100% cotton. However, the company does make a glass cloth that is 100% linen, which Saxon says is better for polishing glasses but, as it is more expensive, it is for more “upmarket, discerning businesses where quality is important”.

Quality plays a major role in the durability of a kitchen linen product – and it assumes even more importance because of the washing regime needed to counteract the abuse these items receive in even the best kitchens.

“If it is not good quality, it doesn’t last,” says Andy Jamshidzadeh from DG Textiles. “Those with more experience know this and would like better quality.”

Jamshidzadeh believes that laundries that supply kitchen linens to hotels and restaurants should educate their customers about the need to use kitchen linen and how to treat it. Without a supply of kitchen linen, he says, staff are more likely to use, and ruin, table linen in the kitchen.

Threlfall, at Tower Linen, supports the need for customer education, saying that a high percentage of kitchen linens are destroyed when they are returned to the laundry. Oven cloths, which are meant to mop up spills from hot dishes, are being used instead of oven gloves to bring dishes out of the oven and as a result are getting burnt.

Even glass cloths are being used to take things out of the oven. Tea towels, serving cloths – anything that is around – will be used to mop up spills on floors, tables and countertops. “We work with clients to try to get them to use the right product for the right purpose,” Threlfall says. “But there is a saying in the laundry industry that ‘a chef will grab anything’ and it is therefore becoming an area where stock is being replenished more than it should be.”

Threlfall suggests that laundries should be charging customers for worn-out items – but says that some may find it insulting to be asked to pay for a ruined tea towel. Certainly, there is a fine line between keeping the customer happy and trying to get them to respect the product, which is why laundries have turned to the cheaper, lower quality products.

“When I started there was nice quality gear – a glass cloth could cost as much as 99p,” says Phil Jackson from Linen Connect. “Now you can get them for around 20p and the quality is not a patch on what it used to be.”

Linen Connect supplies a range of 100% cotton kitchen linens of various weights and qualities, mainly to the linen hire market. Its main seller is a herringbone kitchen cloth with a green border, “like the chefs use on TV”, Jackson says. In line with other suppliers, manufacture is outsourced to countries like India, Egypt and Pakistan.

Despite the ongoing problem with staining, there seems to be little incentive in the kitchen linens sector to invest in the development of stain-resistant materials and products. That is because the cost of research can be high, outweighing the likely return on investment.

The only company to offer an anti-bacterial product is UTC. “No single item has had a greater impact on our sales in recent months than that of our Anti-Bac range of oven, waiters’, kitchen and glass cloths,” says Rue.

“The effectiveness of these items is largely down to the introduction of Amicor, which has suppressing properties which are inherent within the fibre.” He explains that with previous attempts, by others, to produce anti-bacterial kitchen linen, the chemical was applied to the surface of the fabric. But Amicor is in the fibres so its effectiveness does not deteriorate with repeated processing. Rue says these claims are supported by independent tests carried out by the University of Nottingham.

All suppliers and textile rental services complain about the treatment of kitchen linens throughout the hospitality industry.

Although they are delivered to the hotel or restaurant in a hygienic, laundered condition, they often come back as breeding grounds for bacteria, especially if they have been left in a corner to gather mould and mildew before being bagged up and sent to the laundry.

Education is the long-term solution, to persuade kitchen staff to use their linens properly. However, although most establishments recognise the problem, old habits remain and changing them likely to be a difficult task.