a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Handkerchiefs: be classy while you blow your nose

Hello, friends! I thought I’d start off by talking about something simple, something (strangely, perhaps) near and dear to me, something that has elicited curious comments and raised eyebrows: how and why I use handkerchiefs.

I started using them a couple years ago because I read about them on Art of Manliness and, well, I like to pick up habits that raise eyebrows, but my dad has always used them, so it wasn’t anything new. In fact, when he chaperoned my fourth grade class trip to Plimouth Plantation, one of the instructors told the joke, “What does a rich man keep and a poor man throw away?” When no one knew the answer, he continued, “Snot! I guess you’re all too young to carry handkerchiefs.” My dad promptly pulled his red bandana out of his back pocket and waved it like a triumphant flag, to my everlasting mortification/pride.

So why handkerchiefs, exactly?

My reasons for using a handkerchief vary widely:

  • They’re kind to the environment.  This is my main reason. Paper tissues waste trees, of course, and producing them also wastes a lot of water, and shipping them from factory to warehouse to store wastes a lot of energy. Imagine how many tissues you could use over the course of your lifetime. That’s a lot of waste. On a related note…
  • They’re cheap. I own about two dozen handkerchiefs, which cost me less than $10 total. If you make them out of old t-shirts they cost you nothing. And I will never have to buy another box of tissues again.
  • They’re stylish. Personal preference, I know; I’ve seen people complain that handkerchiefs remind them of old men. To which I say, is that supposed to be a bad thing? If so, you can get them in exciting, non-old-man colors and patterns (try Etsy), or perhaps try a HankyBook.
  • They’re soft on the nose. I have a lot of allergies that make my nose run, and I still remember the dry, nasty, painful red nose I  used to get from using tissue after tissue. Cloth is much better.
  • It’s very suave to offer a handkerchief to a person in distress. I mean, you could give them a Kleenex, but it’s much nicer to give them a handkerchief. Don’t forget to assure them it’s clean!  Don’t give somebody a used one, because that’s not suave. If you want, you can keep an extra with you that is reserved for offering to others so that you know it won’t be dirty. Don’t ask for your handkerchief back, but if the person gives it back, accept it, because maybe they don’t have anywhere to put it and they feel awkward.

The only reason I’ve seen not to use a handkerchief is the “ick” thing, that that’s not a problem for me. Mucus is not scary. As a kid, when I had a running nose and no tissues and Dad offered me his bandana, I was more afraid of getting grease on me than encountering his germs (my dad works on machines in a paper mill). Anyway, if you fold your handkerchief carefully, nothing will escape into your pocket or your bag, and I’d much rather have a folded cloth in my pocket than a wad of wet paper. Since it seems like I’m never near a trash can when I have to blow my nose.

How I fold my handkerchiefs

I used to just fold them haphazardly, but over time I have discovered a method that makes it much easier to use every surface of the cloth. It also keeps the snot on one side of the cloth, which makes it easier to clean if you have to do it by hand for some reason.

First, lay your handkerchief out flat. Iron it if you like. I never do, because I’m lazy.

Now, fold it in half from left to right, then again in half from top to bottom, then once more from top to bottom. Finally, fold it from left to right so that it’s a square.

This way you will have many folds that open easily, like the pages of a book. Or a magazine with those longer pages that fold out. If you fold it haphazardly you might find yourself shaking out your handkerchief and re-folding it every time you use it, which just discourages you from using it.

Now all you have to do is open the correct fold — I start from the inside and work my way toward the outside, to keep the dampness contained and all — blow your nose, close the fold back up, and stick it back in your pocket.

So how do you wash them?!

Very, very important. Fortunately, it’s also very easy. Most of the time you just throw them in with the rest of your laundry. Don’t worry, you won’t end up with snot on your clothes! That was my fear, too. But if you, like me, only do laundry once a month or so (this is why I have twenty-something handkerchiefs) it might be a while before they get washed, and by then things might be a little… um… crusty. To fix this, I just soak them in a bucket of water for a while before I wash them.

Ready to start using handkerchiefs?

One thing to keep in mind is the material you choose. Like I said before, you can make them out of old t-shirts or any other cloth you have lying around that would be fairly soft and absorbent, but if you want to buy them, I recommend organic cotton. My handkerchiefs are regular cotton, but organic is better because the conventional  production of cotton is bad; I didn’t know this when I bought them.

I also recommend getting them with patterns and colors, though there is something to be said for the tradition of a white handkerchief. Or you could have them monogrammed, if you are feeling very classy. I have three different blue plaid ones, and the rest are all white, which apparently makes some people think that I only have one white handkerchief and I use it week after week and it gets dirtier and dirtier. Ha, haha. Hilarious. The colorful ones have more personality anyway.

And, by the way, I should also mention that handkerchiefs and pocket squares are not the same thing. Pocket squares are smaller, usually silk or  linen, and you put them in the chest pocket of your jacket because it’s stylish. I’ve tried using my handkerchiefs as pocket squares and it just looks bulky and messy and silly. Though maybe if I ironed them…

Switching to handkerchiefs is one of the first steps I’m taking toward a more sustainable lifestyle — not to mention a better fashion sense — and I hope you will join me.

8 Responses to Handkerchiefs: be classy while you blow your nose

  1. Thanks for this. I just started using handkerchiefs, and I really love the idea, but I’ve been having issues figuring out how to use them while keeping them folded.

    Well written and helpful!

  2. Hello, I enjoyed your article, it was witty and honest. I found your link after doing a search to find out what type of fabric would be best to make hankies for my son (25 yrs old). The information and link to the hankybook was interesting and I am glad I found it before starting my project. Just wanted you to know because I normally do not leave comments. Thank you. Deb

  3. Y’know, my dad had a red bandanna, too, when I was really little. Except he farmed, and got dust in his nose, so it was kinda gross…
    My nose almost never runs, so the only reason I have for a hanky is to feel all classy and old-fashioned. I’d make a few for my sister, who has allergies, but she, like my mom, is firmly on the side of paper tissues. (“Who’d want to carry around a used snot rag, anyway?”)

  4. snot, boogs and general nastiness need to go in the trash not in your pocket. tissues degrade really, really quickly and as more sustainable manufacturing practices have taken hold, it’s could soon become less wasteful than washing a hanky. nothing classy about a hanky unless you consider nostalgia classy. privately cleaning yourself is classy. hanky showiness is blowhardy.

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