Until I moved to Japan after college, I had never carried a handkerchief. The handkerchief was a throwback to my grandmother’s generation I thought and was something one waived in the air while waiting for smelling salts before you were about to faint. The hankies I knew were white and lacy. Definitely old fashioned I thought.
When I moved to Japan though, I was startled to see in the department stores shelf upon shelf of beautiful and sometimes whimsical handkerchiefs. There were even handkerchiefs for kids with cartoon characters on them.
For Japanese women, carrying a handkerchief is essential. Not all public bathrooms have paper towels so having a lovely handkerchief with which to dry your hands is helpful. The handkerchief is also useful during humid summers to dab you brow or neck on a crowded train. I never saw anyone blow his or her nose into a handkerchief the way Americans do. It’s more for discreet dabbing the way you would when you walk inside after walking a few blocks on a snowy day and your nose drips a tiny bit. Tissues are used for dealing with runny noses and serious nasal congestion while handkerchiefs are a more multipurpose cloth kept either in the pocket or purse. Japanese hankies are made of very lightweight cotton so they dry extremely quickly and are not bulky in pockets.
I soon found the handkerchief habit both charming and civilized, not to mention eco-friendly. Choosing which handkerchief I would carry each day became part of getting dressed in the morning. I have a watermelon hankie with Sara Midda illustrations on it and another blue and white one with little French sailors that I carry only in the summer. There’s one sweet one made from Liberty of London fabric. I even have one with the Tokyo subway system printed on it.
When I met Bill I learned that he carried a handkerchief daily even before he went to live in Japan. One night after our first fabric line had been delivered I found him in the studio late at night making himself handkerchiefs out of the sample fabrics we had received. He regularly gets asked where he gets his colorful handkerchiefs and often sends them to one friend who lives in Morocco who requests them. This year I made him a new one because those from the first line have begun to fade after six years of weekly washings.
Although quilting cotton is thicker than those diaphanous ones I bought in Japan, it still makes a fine handkerchief. To make your own, cut a square of cotton the size you desire. I tend to make mine about 8″x8″. Bill likes his bigger so he makes his 14″x14″.
Making the hankies is the same as making a cloth napkin. Turn under and press a 1/4″ strip on all sides. Roll the edges again 1/4″ and press. Topstitch all sides taking care to backstitch the corners.
Although they don’t have to be pressed when they come out of the dryer I prefer to press them so they’re neat and crisp when folded. Unlike shirts that require a lot of manipulation to get right, handkerchiefs iron flat in seconds. Then when you’re in the movie theater and the weepy part comes, you reach into your purse and there’s a beautiful little hankie in there with which to dab the corner of your eye.