Friday 25 October 2013

Old-Fashioned Handkerchiefs

If you are someone who regards using fabric handkerchiefs, which get laundered and reused, rather than paper tissues which are binned, or burned, after use, as faintly disgusting and unhygienic, you may want to close this page and move on elsewhere because this post is an unashamed hymn to proper, old-fashioned handkerchiefs! Just saying, in case anyone feels squeamish about the idea!

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.

 They are all pretty faded and have become beautifully soft, through much washing and ironing, but faded and frayed in places though they are, they still very evocative of my childhood especially the Mabel Lucie Attwell ones. The little rhymes that each one had, have almost disappeared. I've no idea what the gardening scene's rhyme was about; I think the one below had something about posting parcels and doing shopping errands by tricycle but it's almost indecipherable and only the green-edged handkerchief in the pic below has a rhyme left that you can read easily.

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

and here

I bought some duck-egg blue cotton lace with the Tilda fabric just because it was so pretty and I may add some to one or two of the handkerchiefs. And you could always add an embroidered initial, if you want, too.

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!


  1. Dear Mrs TT
    This post brought back so many memories, from the Karvol (I used to be fascinated by those magical little capsules), through the hankies (which I often received from relatives at Christmas) to the cologne and Devon violets (I had forgotten about that, but I do remember receiving some in a bottle which looked like that one.) Your hankies look beautiful - almost too pretty to use, especially if you add the lovely lace too!
    Thank you for bringing back these memories.
    Have a lovely weekend
    Best wishes

    1. Ah a fellow Karvol user! It's funny how very evocative smell is isn't it? Whether Karvol or the violets! Glad this brought back happy memories, Ellie. E x

  2. Love this post E and such beautiful handkerchief that you made! I used that very tutorial to make a handkerchief for my Dad last Christmas, the perfect gift for a man I thought. The only problem is that he's loath to use it too much! Hope you're well, Sx

    1. It's a great tutorial isn't it? And yes, I agree - perfect stocking filler for the men in the family! E x

  3. I love your stories! In the US we don't have any Karvol (at least that I know of) but we use jars of Vicks Vapor Rub slathered on chests and under noses. Your photographs of your handkerchiefs are works of art--so tranquil. Your hand sewing is beautiful as well. I do love hand sewing but have not done any in a good while. I need to get back to it, I think it brings a little peace with it:)

    1. Oh yes! We had Vicks Vapour Rub too when I was small - didn't mind the smell but it was always so greasy and I didn't like that so much! I absolutely agree - there is something incredibly peaceful and therapeutic about hand-sewing. Good for the soul! E x

  4. Lovely post, and lovely memories, tho not the one of my mum boiling my dad's handkerchiefs *gag*.
    I still have a shed load of hankies including some very fragile ones that might have been older than mum's time.
    Susan x

    1. Vintage hankies are very special - how lovely to have a whole collection! E x

  5. Your hankies look lovely. Such a shame to wipe your nose with one!


    1. Thank you Penny - glad you like them! You have a point about not using them but I've told myself sternly "these are to be used!" E x

  6. Ooh, a post after my own heart! Can I share my own hanky-thoughts with you, please?
    I think that link should work - it leads to my day-to-day hankies and then shows my mother's collection of antique ones... I last made one for my dad, out of silk, when I was about 14. I really should look at your instructions and have another go!

    1. Thank you for the link, Floss - what a gorgeous collection! And yes, I agree ironing them is a delight not a chore! E x

    2. Hello again - thanks for commenting on the old post! I do, as it happens, have one or two of the least saleable hankies left in a drawer (those cute children's ones...) If you'd like to email me your address, I will send you one or two, because when I saw your hankies my first thought was that they'd go really well with my French ones!

    3. Oh thank you so much! I'd love them! I'll email you! E x

  7. Nice post! I love those hankies from your childhood. I use linen napkins in my kitchen. They can be found at yard sales as no one wants to iron them. They launder up nicely and are soft to use and no paper napkin waste!

  8. J'ai eu grand plaisir à te lire car j'aime beaucoup collectionner les mouchoirs anciens, moi aussi. J'aime les mouchoirs d'enfants colorés des "seventies", mais aussi les mouchoirs brodés et monogrammés en lin très fin, comme dans les trousseaux de nos grand-mères. J'espère pouvoir te montrer ma collection, un jour !
    Love from France
    P.S. Tu vas bientôt recevoir une carte de Poitiers, où j'étais hier !...

  9. I just found you via Bunny Mummy and came to have a peak here.
    Your pictures are gorgeous! And I like the way you write about those hankies.

    I am going to read lots more in your blog.

    Brigitte from Belgium

  10. I am a dedicated vintage handkie user too- love them :) Have you tried to use the Tilda fabric handkies yet? Is the fabric soft enough?

  11. My Father is still a daily hanky user - always has been. My mother always used to get me to iron them when I was small and wanted to help!

  12. What an enchanting history of the handkerchiefs in your family! You are a gifted writer, that's for certain, and a talented sewer. I'll be back. Keep up the good work!
    All Vintage Hankies

  13. I think my mother must have read Little Women as one of my most abiding hankie memories is of being given squares of handkerchief linen to make handkerchiefs for my grandmothers and great aunts for Christmas. As the years passed we progressed from simple rolled hems (late 1960s childhood) to drawn thread hems and embroidered monograms (early 1970s teens). It seems like a different world now.

    Lovely post Elizabeth :)

  14. My father always tied a knot in the corner of his handkerchief to remember things - just doesn't work with a tissue. The best thing about making your own must be that they can be whatever size you need rather than a demure, dainty but impractical ladylike hankie or enormous manly handkerchief that bulges out of your pocket.

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  16. Hi, Elizabeth. I hope you fared okay through the storm. I am in the process of making a shirt and a vest using reproductions of patterns from the 1850s for a coworker. He is going to dress up as the abolitionist John Brown and present a monologue to his US history classes. The shirt pattern calls for lots of hand-sewn French rolled hems. I cheated a bit, since I didn't want to do that much hand sewing, but I love seeing your work and tutorial here. I think I can manage using this hand technique on a small item, such as a handkerchief, but a size 40 men's shirt is too much!

    I enjoyed seeing your vintage hankies. I wonder if you could do some fine crocheting around the edge of a hankie? I have some vintage hand towels that seem to have crocheted edges or maybe they're tatted? I'm not certain. Also, my mother used to have a bottle of 4711 cologne. I haven't seen it in years. I need to find some to see if the scent evokes memories of my childhood. All the best. Love, Liz

  17. I've been away much too may wonderful things you have posted about! I was immediately jolted back to the past with the "4711". Aw, what wonderful memories of my childhood. Love the hankies, E!

  18. Those are precious! We never used handkerchiefs as children, and I found that delightful and very "English" of your mum. I might just try this, as I have lots of napkins from the 30's and 40's that are white linen. Now to find that special cologne.

  19. 4711 and Devon violets!... oh you have brought back such sweet memories...mainly of my beloved wishes to you this weekend
    Daisy j x

  20. Ooh! I still use hankies too - and of they hold so many memories. The pretty ones I was given as a child are long gone, but then I always peferred my Dad's very oldest ones, ones that I was specially allowed when I had a cold and oh my were they soft! My mum used to boil them up with washing powder in a saucepan before putting them in the normal wash. I used to be allowed to iron them (and pillowcases) when I wanted to help. I still like ironing hankies and pillowcases! But Devon violets - urgh I can smell it now. My Grandma would go to Widecombe-in-the-Moor every year and bring some back ( I was even given a small bottle a few times). It was considered perfume suitable for a child (a bit like tea made with half milk) so I was encouraged to dab some on a hankie but I couldn't abide the smell (of course I could never say such a thing though)!
    Your homemade hankies look beautiful and your stitching so neat!
    Thank you for your inspiration and the walk down memory lane x


Thank you so much for taking the time to visit me at Mrs TT's and comment. I love to read what you write.