Musings on the handkerchief

Resurrecting a former fashion staple, the handkerchief.

Credit: Flickr / Le Petit Poulailler

Using handkerchiefs is in a way like running a marathon to me. I love the idea and aspire to participate, but I’m also far from ready.

Hanky heyday

It’s almost unfathomable that a little square of fabric used to be such a universally predominant cultural staple through the ages, used by men and women alike for a multitude of purposes that went far beyond a basic personal hygiene article. Indeed, the handkerchief—in dizzying arrays of different fabric, shapes and intricate designs—also served as everything from symbols of social status and measurements of refinement, to romantic tokens, creative outlets and fashionable expressions.

Decline of reusable, rise of disposableEveryday about 270,000 tress are flushed down the toilet or end up as garbage around the world

Somewhere along the line, the handkerchief devolved into the single-use tissue paper, mass-produced as quickly as is disposed of today. It was in 1924 when Kimberly-Clark introduced Kleenex to the American market and the glory days of the handkerchief began to sputter to a close. Kleenex was initially marketed towards female consumers as a quick makeup remover (to be used with cold cream). It came as a surprise even to the manufacturer that the general public was more than ready to leave tradition behind in favour of the disposable handkerchief. And the term Kleenex quickly made its way into the everyday vernacular, used interchangeably with tissue.

Environmental implications of kleenex

The extent of harm done to the environment by the prevalent use of disposable paper products (i.e., loss of important carbon trap, pollution filteration and animal habitat) remains a hotly contested topic, especially centering around the use of virgin fibres, with Greenpeace insisting that it takes 90 years to grow a box of Kleenex and Kimberly-Clark standing by its sustainable practice, and opinions in between.

PHOTO GALLERY: Love thy hanky

The bottom line, however, is that the rapid consumption of forest products is having a negative impact on the earth, and the sooner we can curb this trend the better. Even when made from recycled fibres, the disposable nature of paper tissues is dangerous in that the allure of convenience is conducive to wasteful behavioiur (I’m certainly guilty of it).

So given today’s increasing emphasis on sustainable living, it is an opportune time for the handkerchief to regain its former glory.


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Hank&cheefHank&Cheef’s line of organic cotton,

locally sewn handkerchiefs


Handkerchief comeback

Hank&Cheef is a local studio that is generating great buzz in its drive to revive the hanky with the “modern handkerchief.” Made from 100% organic cotton, the pleasing designs are playful, chic and softly colourful. What’s more, the whole product line is printed and sewn entirely in Vancouver.

Check out their Facebook page for photos and store info.


Make your own handkerchiefMake your own handkerchief

Make your own handkerchief


DIY handkerchief revolution

“I like the idea that hankies are coming back,” says Granville blogger Kathryn Slater, who makes and prints her own handkerchiefs for personal use and to sell.

To learn the design side, she took a silkscreening class at Blim Art Studios, a vibrant arts resource centre that offers a variety of creative workshops for the hands-on fashionista (check out their store on Etsy for some handmade eye candy). She was immediately hooked.

She has since silk-screened about five different patterns. They start off as simple pencil drawings, which then are scanned and fine-tuned with computer software such as Adobe Illustrator.

“I put my hankies to the test the other week when I came down with a

cold,” she recalls, saying she always dreaded the sore nose and redness that came after obliterating a box or two of disposable tissues. “Using my hankies this time, I would use 5 or 6 of them during the day and then handwash them with soap and very hot water.”

And the results? “The material was soft and didn’t scratch my nose as much as

the recycled paper ones I used to get,” she says. “And I came out of my cold with a pink nose instead of a red one and am happy to have made the switch to hankies.”

Incidentally, Kathryn became a fan of the handkerchief after trying ones from Hank&Cheef. She found them to be durable and quick-drying; moreover, they fit nicely into a pocket or purse without making any bulges the way tissue paper packs often do.


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PHOTO GALLERY: Love thy hanky




HandkerchiefsFlickr / !!blue


My experiment

This all sounded great to me, and I was excited to take on a new, earth-friendly habit. Who wouldn’t want to stop taking part in literally wiping away virgin forests? And do it in style, too.

But I didn’t just rush out to buy new handkerchiefs. Instead, I dug out one of the cotton handkerchiefs I used to wear back in college during my “headscrarf” phase (this particular phase I don’t mind fessing up to … some of the others, brrrr). I brought it to the office one day and felt pretty good all morning with it sitting in my cardigan pocket, full of promise and potential.

When I felt the first sniffles coming on, I almost too eagerly reached for my hankie in anticipation of the premiere effort. After I sneezed into it, though, the “honeymoon” period was over. I folded up the handkerchief and for the rest of the day I just couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable that I’m carrying my snot in my pocket. I didn’t even want it in my pocket any more, let alone reuse it. So, when the next sniffles came, I reached for a tissue.

Hooked on hankies

Photo gallery: Love thy hanky

Learn more about handkerchiefs and culture:

Hanky Panky: An Intimate History Of The Handkerchief by Helen Gustafson (available through Google Books) explores how the handkerchief can be a dynamic art canvas imbued with historical meaning, both on personal and social levels.

The next day, I decided to switch tactics, using the handkerchief to dry my hands after washing. But that didn’t quite work out either. I didn’t really have space at my desk to air it out afterwards. And it wasn’t appealing to have a damp handkerchief festering away in my pocket. As I usually wash my hands quite often, between bathroom trips and rinsing dishes, there wasn’t enough time for the handkerchief to completely dry between uses.

So the enthusiastic beginning and the disappointing ending on my experiment spanned an embarrassingly brief period of two days. I don’t really want to give up, though! Any handkerchief users out there who can give me some pointers?

In the meantime, it actually looks pretty good peeking out of the pocket of a boyfriend jacket. Hmm… perhaps all is not lost.