I am of a generation that grew up when fabric handkerchiefs were commonplace and I was brought up to make sure I had a clean one in my pocket each morning. It's not that we didn't have paper tissues at home - we did, but their use was limited and not really encouraged as they were "wasteful" in my mother's eyes, especially as I had a regrettable tendency to go through the box of multicoloured pastel tissues, fishing out all the pink and pale blue ones and discarding the rest. Ahem! Anyway the use of tissues was restricted generally to when one had a cold and went to school with a capsule of a pungent decongestant called "Karvol", emptied onto one. I was fascinated by those capsules - little, individual ampoules of amber-coloured liquid that my mother snipped the top off, with a pair of sewing scissors, and decanted carefully onto a waiting pad of tissue. This was folded over and tucked into a pocket, from where it fumigated me and everyone else in my vicinity all day, until it wore off. Less functional and less pungent than the "Karvol" was a drop of Yardley's Lavender Water or 4711 Eau de Cologne which, for an old-fashioned treat, my mother would occasionally dab on the proper, cotton handkerchiefs we used for blowing noses, wiping tears, grazed knees or cut fingers, most of the time. I still have those handkerchiefs. Most of them anyway.
Mabel Lucie Attwell was a children's book illustrator active in the first part of the 20th C and there is a kind of vintage innocence about her images of children with their characteristically round, smiley faces, rosy cheeks and stocky legs with dimpled knees.
Her children belong to a world that is now outmoded - they carry old-fashioned satchels as they walk or cycle to school; they ride dated, slightly cumbersome tricycles, they have picnics from wicker baskets and retro thermos flasks;
the girls wear short-skirted frocks with puff-sleeves and the boys sport caps, short trousers and lace-up shoes; they play old fashioned ball-games; they chase after butterflies with butterfly-nets and weed the garden in sun-bonnets. You get the picture.
More recently, I've acquired other, less self-evidently childish handkerchiefs - some plain, some not so plain. I went through a phase of bypassing them in favour of the "more hygienic", paper option, like poor old Mr Ogmore, under Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's astringent, disinfecting thumb, in Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood"! Do you remember him? He has a whole raft of health and hygiene rules dictated by his wife which include drinking "herb tea which is free from tannin", "eating a charcoal biscuit which is good for me" and blowing his nose "In a piece of tissue-paper which I afterwards burn."!! "In the garden, if you please." snaps Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard!
But risking Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard's, cleansing wrath(!), I've increasingly come back to fabric handkerchiefs. Not least because an undiscovered, old-fashioned, fabric handkerchief that has surreptitiously stowed away in a garment stuffed in the washing machine, does not shed a snowstorm of nasty, little, tissue flakes all over the laundry in the wash. I find these pesky flakes are virtually impossible to remove effectively when you try to pick them off but they seem to shed themselves ubiquitously and without difficulty, under their own steam, everywhere you'd rather they weren't, when you are not looking.
I've also come to feel that fabric handkerchiefs are greener and ultimately cheaper than paper ones and, if treated sensibly, are just as hygienic. I even use them when I have a cold although I do have a patent system for laundering them separately, on a very hot wash, as I do for handkerchiefs that have been used to mop up blood, bicycle oil, paint or mud. The only snag is that using them more frequently has inevitably meant losing quite a number, including some old favourites. Not the Mabel Lucie Attwell ones, you'll be pleased to hear!
You can, of course, still buy handkerchiefs, but they are not quite as readily available as they were. Ebay throws up some enchanting, vintage ones in wonderful art deco designs on silk and fine linen as well as cotton and I was sorely tempted by a collection I saw on Ebay of twelve very pretty, vintage-style-but-new, cotton handkerchiefs, only to find it was being sold from the US and, with the postage, the price was, well, silly, just for a few pretty hankies.
And then I got it into my head that perhaps I could simply make my own. I mean, how hard can it be? A handkerchief is just a square of lightweight cotton with a narrow hem. Not difficult, surely, to rustle up a few myself?
I remember years ago using a rolled hem foot on my mother's sewing machine to create a narrow hem on a silk scarf. My basic (and now elderly) Elna sewing machine did not come equipped with such a foot and extra accessories for her are no longer available. But handkerchiefs have been around a lot longer than sewing machines and in the old days, people sewed them by hand. The Victorians were wonders at this kind of fine, constructive hand-stitching. Handkerchief-hemming even figures in literature - Beth hems a set for "Marmee" when money is short and the girls want to give their mother something for Christmas, in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women". Anyway, leaving the frugal March girls on one side and feeling sure that there must be a "how-to" out there, I had a little search and found a whole wonderful Purl Bee tutorial on hand-sewing handkerchiefs with beautifully clear photos and instructions. Bingo!
It has been one of the happiest, crafty discoveries I've made in recent times. No good if you don't like hand-sewing, but I do and I've found making a raft of my own hand-hemmed handkerchiefs one of the most therapeutic and useful activities I've done in a long time.
I experimented, first of all, on one of D's old shirts just to see whether I could get a result I was happy with, before Mrs T, with her "happy snipper" tendencies(!)*, started cutting up anything precious and pretty.
*I've posted before, here, about the trouble my "happy snipper" tendencies got me into!
The shirt fabric was nice and soft through much laundering and although the collar and cuffs were badly frayed, rendering it no longer wearable, the back of the shirt was perfectly good. Just right for cutting out two sample handkerchiefs, on which to practise my narrow hem stitching.
Having mastered the technique to my satisfaction - my hems are not as perfectly narrow as on a commercially produced handkerchief but they are good enough to pass muster, I think - I moved on to cut up some fat quarters of Tilda fabric that I'd picked up a while back in Hobbycraft.
I found I could only get one handkerchief from each fat quarter but the off-cuts will be used for something else and the handkerchief results are just great. I love them!
And for those of you who are beginning to turn your thoughts to making homemade Christmas presents, especially for those difficult-to-make-for-men in your life, you might find this idea hits the nail on the head. You may not even have to spend a single penny to make a jolly collection of handkerchiefs - raid your fabric stash, or that bag of clothes due to go to the charity shop for suitable lightweight cotton fabric. Obviously you don't want anything too heavy or with too coarse a weave and you need to cut your squares in line with the grain of the fabric and not on the bias but frayed shirts, old sheets, off-cuts from summer dress-making projects are all your friends, just waiting for a new life as handkerchiefs!
For each handkerchief you need:
a piece of 100% cotton fabric big enough to cut a 12" / 30 cm square for a reasonable size ladies' handkerchief or a 18" / 46 cm square for a man-size one;
a small, sharp, hand-sewing needle;
some matching, or contrasting, thread, depending on the look you are after.
Plainish pastel fabrics, stripes, polka dots, florals are all obvious choices but I wouldn't rule out something more flamboyant. Depending on the recipient, of course. I cut my squares with a rotary cutter and a quilting ruler, for accuracy, but if you don't have a rotary cutter, you could just draw out a paper pattern and cut the square out with scissors, keeping the sides as straight as you can. If, unlike me, you have a rolled-hem foot for your sewing machine, you will be able to rustle up a dozen or more in no time, but if you don't, take heart, because I found sewing them by hand an entirely delightful experience. Don't be tempted to cut your sewing thread too long though, as it will knot itself and that gets annoying. Better to play safe and use shorter pieces, I found.
If you decide to give it a go, you'll quickly get the hang of the technique. A small tip is that when you come to the corners make the gaps between the stitches a bit smaller so that the fold on both edges is stitched securely in place. You can see where I've done this in the close-up pics of the corners here
These ones I have made are all in subtle pastel colours - nice and lady-like - but I am thinking of going bolder and brighter now that I have got my handkerchief-hemming-hand in! Amy Butler prints? Liberty lawn off-cuts? Christmas fabrics? Bring 'em on!
Oh, and don't forget the Eau de Cologne or lavender water ...
... or even that most Victorian of English perfumes, a tiny bottle of "Devon Violets", to dab on the results!