Mackem mover: Tea towel of Sunderland landmarks goes global with its own Instagram account

From the depths of the Sumatran jungle to the heights of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur - a tea towel which captures the fabric of life in Sunderland has gone global.

By Katy Wheeler
Tuesday, 09 April, 2019, 16:55
Helen Wilson with the Mackem tea towel at Kelimutu Lake in Indonesia

Better travelled than most people, the tea towel which features some of the city’s best-loved landmarks such as Sunderland Empire, Wearmouth Bridge and Holy Trinity Church, even has its own instagram account, @teatowelontour, so that people can follow its adventures.

In the past two months, the tea towel has been to far-flung places such as Malaysia; Sumatra, Java and Bali in Indonesia and even a boat party in Thailand, with more destinations to come.

The person behind Tea Towel on Tour is Helen Wilson, 32, from Roker, who was given the tea towel as a gift when she left Wearside to go globe-trotting.

Speaking to the Echo from Indonesia, Helen said: “It was a Christmas gift from my best mates Kim and Darren. This trip was actually only meant to be a three-week holiday to Thailand in February. But in December I decided to just sack off the return flight and see where I ended up, so they wanted to give me a bit of home to take with me.

“They figured this was perfect as it’s small and light to carry. They asked to see it in different places around the world so I set it up its own Instagram account just for our own amusement really. It’s nice that other people are enjoying it too.

“I always tag Kim (@just_me_in_situ) and Darren (@crawleycooks), as well as the local artist who makes these towels, Kathryn Robertson (@kr.illustrates) in the posts.”

Helen with the tea towel in Bali, Indonesia

The tea towel features one of many locally-inspired designs by Sunderland-based artist Kathryn who often draws inspiration from the skyline of the city for her work. As well as the tea towel, her drawings have featured on prints and a tote bag, available to buy at Sunderland Museum shop, and in a new mural at Holmeside Takeout in High Street West.

Kathryn said: “I illustrated the print on the tea towel to document bits of the city centre and to highlight the unique architecture that we still have. It’s easy to pick out negatives when it comes to Sunderland but I want to show the good bits (this is a small part of an ongoing project for me).

“I was chuffed with the response to the tea towel, especially from those who have moved away and wanted a reminder of home. I’ve loved seeing Helen’s updates with the towel, and I’m really glad she wanted to take a little bit of home with her around the world.”

As well as being a great way for Helen’s friends and family to follow her adventures, the tea towel has also become a talking point among fellow travellers.

Catching some rays in Lake Toba in Indonesia

Helen said: “It has got plenty attention whenever I’ve got it out for a photo, and everyone I’ve explained the reasoning behind it to has thought it’s great.

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“They’ve been keen to help take a photo and follow the Instagram account and for some reason the towel seems to instantly be referred to like a person. People ask if it’s been having a good time and where it’s been. One of my favourite photos is of a girl from London making sure the towel photobombed me while I was being harnessed to a swing in Bali. She’s holding it up at the side, proper laughing at it. I didn’t know she’d done it until I looked back at the pictures later on.”

She added: “People I’ve met from outside the UK tend not to have heard of Sunderland. British people I’ve met usually start with “you’re obviously from the North East” because of my accent, but often can’t quite place where, so the towel has been a great way to shout about how lovely parts of Sunderland are. I point out the different landmarks in the design and people have asked more about Sunderland.

“I’m always amazed at how many people from the UK don’t realise Sunderland has beaches. I always mention our Blue Flags.”

Having a whale of a time on a boat party in Thailand

Helen isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, and is hoping to extend her - and the tea towel’s - travels.

“I’ve been away just over two months now,” she said. “And while I don’t have a return ticket, the plan at the minute is to head back to the UK in time for Creamfields festival at the end of August - though it’s very possible I’ll get distracted en route.

“I didn’t take as many pictures of the tea towel as I should have in Thailand and Malaysia, so I’m trying to make sure I take it out with me more now.

“I get distracted by stuff so easily that often it’s not until I get back to my hotel at night and realise the towel has had a smashing day out but I didn’t take its picture.

“In order to extend an Indonesian visa, you have to commit to a date to leave the country, so I’ll be heading to The Philippines at the end of April. Other than that everything is on a whim, so who knows!”

•You can follow the Mackem tea towel travels on Instagram @teatowelontour

Checking out the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur
With tour guide Eddie in the Sumatran Jungle
The tea towel photobombing Helen in Bali