Did your grandparents carry handkerchiefs? Chances are they did, and these reusable cloths are coming back into style – big time. Far from being unhygienic (as many of us have been led to believe), these are great, eco-friendly options that are as kind to your skin as they are to the planet.
Let’s learn a bit more about them, and how to make them easily at home!
Why Did People Stop Carrying Handkerchiefs?
Quite simply, because of marketing manipulation.
Kleenex tissues were invented in the early 1920s. They were created as a means of removing cold cream, but the marketers soon came to an epiphany. Instead of being used primarily by women, these disposable cloths were popular with men too. People were using them to blow their noses instead of solely relying on handkerchiefs.
As a result, the Kleenex company developed a slogan to convince people that handkerchiefs were unhygienic. Adverts with the slogan “Don’t put a cold in your pocket!” were on almost every radio station and in practically every magazine. This fearmongering tactic worked wonders. Within 30 years, more people were using disposable tissues than handkerchiefs.
You can imagine how much money that company has made since instilling this paranoia?
Because of this message, many people have been inundated with the idea that handkerchiefs are unhygienic. After all, you can throw a tissue into a magical garbage bin as soon as you use it. This rids you of germ-laden sinus drippings immediately.
In contrast, you’d carry a used handkerchief around with you until you get home. Make sense?
Benefits of Handkerchiefs Over Tissues
We now live in an era where people are acutely aware of the need for sustainability and eco-friendly living. As a result, we’re all more aware of the far-reaching impact that our daily choices have on the world as a whole.
Consider how many trees are cut down to make disposable tissues. And how much water is needed to process them! According to Dr. Yu, founder of World Green International, “17 trees will have to be cut down, and 20,000 gallons of water is contaminated to produce a ton of tissue paper.”
The average daily tissue consumption for a single city is over 600 tons. And that’s just one city, using over 11,000 trees and about 12 million gallons of water for the sake of disposable tissues.
We can do better than this.
Now add to that the fact that these tissues are full of all kinds of less-than-wonderful chemicals. Most tissues contain amounts of petrochemicals, formaldehyde, and chlorine bleach. These can do a lot of damage to your skin, and the body absorbs them more easily through broken skin.
In contrast, cotton handkerchiefs are gentle to adult and child skin alike. Furthermore, the only chemicals in them will be via your choice of laundry detergent.
The key to better handkerchief hygiene isn’t a matter of disposability. Rather, we need to keep used hankies from contaminating everything else until we can wash them.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for this. Cloth menstrual pads and diapers come with leak-proof carrying bags. Get yourself some waterproof storage bags for your handkerchiefs as well, and you’re good to go!
How to Make Homemade Handkerchiefs
Break out the sewing machine and cloth. We’re diving in!
What You’ll Need:
- 100% cotton fabric
- Cotton thread for sewing the handkerchief
- Contrast color thread for basting
- Fabric scissors
- Seam ripper or manicure scissors
- Tape measure or ruler
- Sewing pins
- Sewing needle(s) OR a sewing machine
Make sure you only buy 100% cotton fabric to make your handkerchiefs. Synthetic fiber blends can irritate your skin, and they’re not absorbent. Some people use cotton-linen blends, which can be okay too but are rougher. Similarly, silk-cotton blends are soft and pretty, but not durable. They’re okay for dabbing away tears rather dramatically, but won’t hold up to dealing with hardcore sinus effluvium.
You can use any weight cotton in either solid hues or prints. Kids tend to like colorful animal prints, for example. I’m a fan of floral and botanical prints, and you can get manly designs as well.
*Here’s a tip: the same sturdy 100% cotton fabric that’s ideal for quilting just happens to be perfect for handkerchiefs too. If you’re making a quilt and have fabric left over, transform it into a handkerchief!
First and foremost, wash and dry your fabric thoroughly. I recommend washing the cotton on cold with two rinse cycles. Then either hang it on the line to dry or put it through the dryer on medium heat. This will eliminate any excess fabric dyes and prevent the cotton from shrinking after you sew it.
Once dried, iron it well to eliminate any creases. Then lay it out on a flat surface and use your measuring tape or ruler to measure out a square size that you like.
The average size is around 16″ x 16″ (or 40cm x 40cm), but it’s really up to you. Many people like to fold hankies into quarters, so a 16″ square will be a 4″ pocket square folded up. Alternatively, you can make yours tenugui style instead, at 14″ x 36″ (or 35cm x 90 cm).
Add an extra 1/2″ on each side for the seam allowance.
Fold each side over 1/4″ (7mm) and iron flat. Then repeat this so that each edge has been double-folded and ironed. If you’ve never made a double-folded hem before, check out this video. Before you baste these into place, use your scissors to cut a small triangle off the edge of each square. This prevents the corners from “bulking up” when you sew them.
After you trim the edges off, double-fold and iron those seams back into place. Then use the contrast thread to baste them lightly with a running stitch. If you’ve never done this by hand before, check out this tutorial:
Time to Sew!
Do you have everything basted into place? Excellent: it’s time to sew.
You can do this either by hand or with a sewing machine. If you’re using a machine, load up your bobbin with the thread you’ve chosen to finish these. Then get that spool into place, thread the needle, and set your machine to “straight stitch.”
You’ll want to stitch 5 mm in from the outer edge of your fabric. If you’ve never sewn corners before, there’s an easy method. When the needle is in the “down” position, lift the presser foot off the fabric. Then turn your project 90 degrees, and put the presser foot back down. This will create a perfectly turned corner!
This is a really quick process, but can be intimidating to a novice sewer. If you’d prefer to sew handkerchiefs by hand for now, that’s absolutely okay! I love to sew these by hand, and they’re good practice for hand stitching in general. Use a backstitch for this kind of hand sewing. It’s sturdy and strong, and very easy to keep in a straight line.
When you’ve sewn all the way around your hem, secure the end with a double knot. Pull the thread through the fabric layers, then tug slightly before cutting it. This will hide the ends inside the hem you’ve just sewn, keeping everything tidy.
Use the seam ripper or manicure scissors to remove your contrast-hued basting stitches. Then, fold your handkerchief into a square and iron it flat.
Wasn’t that fun? And easy?!
This is a great project for a rainy weekend afternoon. If you’re using a sewing machine, you can hammer out several handkerchiefs in a single day. Or hand-sew them to wind down in the evenings. Whichever method you choose, you’ll have several glorious stacks of handkerchiefs for when you need them.
Remember that handkerchiefs aren’t just for colds and flus! They’re great to carry with you for a number of different reasons. They’re great for keeping sweat out of your eyes when gardening, for example. You can also dampen them with some water to clean ice cream off your kids’ faces or mop up spills when out in public.
Keep some in your bag along with one of those waterproof cases, and toss them into the laundry when you get home. Every so often, hang them outside in the sunshine or soak them in a 1:1 water to vinegar ratio soak to disinfect them. When you use them, you’ll be kinder to your skin, as well as kinder to the environment.
And that’s awesome for everyone.