Handkerchiefs Are Freakin’ Fantastic

Handkerchiefs get a really bad rap. I understand why, because I used to think the exact same thing everyone does in our culture. Just, ew, right? You blow your nose into a piece of cloth… and then you’re supposed to blow your nose into this goopy cloth again? Ick. Gross.

But this reaction is dead wrong. And it’s impossible to really know how wrong it is until you actually try to use hankies yourself. When all you’ve experienced with blowing your nose is the goopy wet mess of the tissue right after you’ve used it, how could you know anything else? I had a couple friends try to get me to use hankies for years, telling me that they were wonderful, and I never believed them. I always had this visceral shudder roll through me at the idea. It wasn’t until I was living with someone who used them (and let me borrow one when we didn’t have any tissues in the house) that I realized how awesome handkerchiefs really are.

The key piece of missing information is this: snot is mostly made of water, and that water evaporates quickly from a hankie (within a few hours). If I blow my nose in a hankie and then go to use it a few hours later, I usually just give it a quick snap with my wrist to unfold the hankie completely, and it’s often hard to tell that it was used at all. Slowly, it’s true, there will be a residue left (either a thin dry film or small hard knots where boogers have dried), but that’s the point where you just throw that hankie in the laundry and grab another one. It really is astonishing just how not-gross the hankies are for quite a long time with repeated use. Another tip for non-icky hankie use: fold over a couple inches of the top of the hankie, and then blow your nose into the double layer of fabric.

Reasons to use hankies

  • Environmental friendliness: we add so much to landfills all the time, and so much of it is completely unnecessary – like using disposable tissues instead of hankies.
  • Very easy to clean: Hankies are small and take up essentially no room in the laundry.
  • $$$: you don’t have to spend money on tissues once you have a good stock of hankies!
  • Ease of use: I often will stash a handkerchief in my purse, in various craft project bags, on the edge of various tables around the house, in the pockets of my coats… pretty much all over the place. I no longer have boxes of tissues taking up horizontal real estate on my tables, or have those crinkly-sounding little plastic-covered portable things of tissues in my bags (ugh, the crinkle of plastic is so annoying).
  • Easier on your nose: if you have hankies that are sufficiently soft, they are nicer on your nose than tissues are.

Speaking of making sure your hankies are sufficiently soft: the source of your handkerchiefs is very important. If you buy them new from the store, they will most likely be stiff – those ones are not easier on your nose than tissues. In fact, I’m betting if you tried those ones, you’d be cursing my name and calling me a liar, because they can be quite uncomfortable at first. One solution is simply to wait it out with time and wash them a lot until they soften, but that can take a loooong time and be uncomfortable in the meantime. Instead, I recommend these methods of obtaining soft hankies:

  • Buying second hand! I adore second hand things, and while at first it might seem squicky to buy used hankies, you’ll find that they are thoroughly washed and not icky at all. I’ve found some at garage sales, it’s true, but my favorite place is the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop. They have an entire section for both cloth napkins and handkerchiefs, and whenever I’m there I comb through them to find the softest hankies I can. Used handkerchiefs are always better than new ones, because they are already softened for you! Check thrift stores that have linens sections for soft hankies.
  • Make them yourself out of some old flannel or other soft, breathable material, like I’ll show you below.

One caveat with using hankies: when you are actually ill and need to blow your nose constantly, you have to have a lot of hankies in order to make it not be really gross. I find that when I have a bad cold, I probably need at least five hankies, if not something more like ten, in order to have the first hankie be dry enough to use when I need it again. So if you’re just starting your hankie collection, don’t have enough clean hankies when you get sick, or you have new hankies that haven’t softened enough yet (stiff hankies will hurt your nose if you use them constantly during a cold, just like tissues will eventually hurt your nose with repeated use), you might need to buy a box of tissues to get through being sick. I did that for a while, until I discovered that the PTO shop had soft hankies that I could stock up on. Now, of course, I realize just how easy they are to make myself, so I doubt it will ever be a problem again.

On to making hankies: it’s really easy! I just made twelve handkerchiefs. DeForest had an old, well-used, very soft flannel pillowcase that had a couple holes worn in it. I don’t remember what he was going to do with it – it was sitting on his project shelf in the craft room, waiting to be made into something. I looked at it a few days ago, and thought it would make great hankies (another friend of mine makes her hankies out of old flannel).

I didn’t have a set size I was aiming for – just kind of cut it up into whatever sizes fit around the holes. I’m actually curious as to which sizes I will like best. The hankies I have picked up from thrift shops have ranged from roughly a square foot to a square… maybe eight inches? (I’m not going to go measure – this is ballparking it from memory.)

After cutting the pieces into rectangles on my cutting mat, I used the iron to turn the edges over twice and pinned them. I just turned them over the smallest amount I could comfortably do, which was about a quarter inch each turn. I then sewed the edges up with a simple straight stitch, and ironed them again. Bam, nicely hemmed edges.

I hope I’ve convinced a few more people just how easy and wonderful it is to use hankies. The disposable paper hygiene industry (paper towels, paper napkins, tissues) is completely unnecessary in most situations and is incredibly wasteful. When I switched over to using cloth towels, napkins, and hankies, my trash reduced dramatically. More on cloth towels and napkins another day, I think. 🙂 Happy hankie using! ~Kell

Author: Wynter

I'm a scientist from Ann Arbor, MI! Leatherworker. Sewist. Exuberant gardener. Board game addict. SCAdian. Huge nerd. :)

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  • Neat!

    We do still use regular tissues, but my dad has always used a hanky.

    We do use cloth towels around the house, now, and I can definitely see the advantage as opposed to paper towels. I keep the paper around for oily things (nervous about dryer fires) and for certain food uses, but they sell packages of 12 white terrycloth cloths at IKEA for something like $5?/pkg, and we've acquired quite a few.
    I also have the makings of flannel napkins, (and some premade ones) but I really need to get around to hemming them.

  • I didn't know that about IKEA! Good information. I'll add that to the post I'm writing about replacing paper towels in the home.

    Hemming is very annoying. It's not one of my favorite tasks in the sewing room.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting!