How to use a handkerchief

A lot of y’all probably know that I use handkerchiefs in place of (disposable) tissues. I find them very convenient and, since they’re such a foreign concept to most people, I want to explain the ins and outs of their use and care!

What do you use hankies for?

I treat hankies as a cross between a tissue and a cloth napkin. I use them to blow my nose, and occasionally wipe my hands and mouth, but appropriate use varies by culture. For example, in Japan, it is rude to use your handkerchief to blow your nose (or to blow your nose in public at all); handkerchiefs are meant only for drying sweat or your hands. And in the US, handkerchiefs are just not used (except in hanky code by the gay and BDSM communities), so there is no particular etiquette I am aware of.

How many handkerchiefs do you need?

I carry one handkerchief in my pocket every day. I use it until it gets too dirty, then I switch it for a new one. Unless I’m sick, I usually use the same one for a week. I carry a couple backups in my backpack in case I suddenly get hit with allergies, or a friend needs a tissue.

I have about 20 hankies in my personal collection, but that’s way more than I need for day-to-day use. If you’re gonna switch to tissues for a really runny nose, 5-7 hankies should be fine for the rest of the time.

What do you do when you’re sick?

I use hankies when I’m sick too! I’ve never needed more than my 20 hankies in a single day. If it looks like I’m going to run out, I wash some handkerchiefs by hand and let them dry overnight to use the next day.

How do you wash handkerchiefs?

You can wash hankies either by hand, or by machine in a mesh lingerie bag. I usually put mine in with the rest of my laundry. In either case, unfold each hankie and soak in water for a few hours before washing. This rehydrates dried mucus so that it can be washed off 🙂 Handkerchief fabric is very lightweight so they dry super fast. I always air dry them.

Where do you get hankies? What should they be made of?

My handkerchief collection is all from my maternal grandparents’ estate. My grandparents had a huge number of handkerchiefs and bandanas. Apparently, they had grown up using handkerchiefs (during the Great Depression) and continued to do so until disposable tissues took hold.

Some of my collection. Almost all are embroidered. Some have crocheted or tatted edging. A few have handmade lace!

Because of the switch to tissues, there are lots of old hankies available at thrift stores, antique stores, creative reuse stores (I’d say this is your best bet), and on eBay. You can use thin woven fabric, like a bandana, or t-shirt material.

The fabric should be natural (cotton and linen are common) and not a satin weave – your snot will slide right off 🙂 (Pocket squares make poor handkerchiefs because they’re usually made of glossy fabric.) A color or patten will help hide stains. If you’re worried you’ll look weird using a hankie, use white ones; they’ll look just like tissues.

How do you fold handkerchiefs?

I fold mine into sixteenths (in half, in half hamburger-style, in half the same direction, then in half hamburger-style again) to make a sort of “book”.

Each time I use the hankie, I use a “page” of the book so that I have a new surface available. I use the main fold of the hankie booklet for wiping my mouth so that I can keep food and mucus separate. To keep the outside of the hankie clean, don’t use its “cover”.

A lot of people think hankies are gross, but you’ll be fine if you’re used to washing other cloth items that come in contact with bodily fluids, like cloth menstrual pads, cloth napkins, even underwear. If it really bothers you, you can also use each hanky just once before washing (but then you’ll need a lot).

Good luck!

6 Replies to “How to use a handkerchief”

  1. Hi, your collection is lovely and I like the tip about how to fold them! Will definitely try that out. I’ve been interested in starting to carry handkerchiefs with me out and about, but I’m concerned about stains (such as coffee, lipstick). How do you keep your vintage ones so clean and stainless? I use little cloth towels to dry my fruit and vegetables in the kitchen, and they definitely stain cotton… I don’t want the same thing to happen. Thanks!

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment! 🙂

      How stained your handkerchiefs get depends on what you use them for.

      Since I mostly use handkerchiefs for blowing my nose, I don’t get many stains (mucous is colorless, of course). The occasional use as an emergency napkin can leave stains, but mine are normally quite small and light. Food, turmeric-containing dishes aside, generally doesn’t leave long-lasting stains – it’s actually quite hard to get natural dyes and pigments to “stick” to fabric.

      Subsequent wash cycles will continue to lighten stains. You can also boil with detergent (hot washes are hard on fabrics, so that would only be occasional). Sunlight bleaches things, so you could dry your hankies outside.

      I’m not so sure about synthetic pigments, like lipstick, however. I know most makeup can be removed with oil, so perhaps you could spot-treat with oil, then with soap or detergent, then wash as normal.

      Honestly, though, that seems like a lot of work. I’ve accepted that I use hankies for gross tasks and that they’re unlikely to stay nice forever. If you just can’t live with visible stains, I’d strongly recommend using patterned or dark fabric for your hankies.

      Good luck! 😀

      1. Thanks for the tips! In my experience, berries are the worst foods for staining. You’re probably right about other foods not leaving too much of a trace after washing. I made a white one and had to use it for coffee cleanup. I was able to wash it out, but it made me super anxious to run to a sink ASAP. I think I will stick to colors and patterns where the prints will disguise stains and keep white ones for facial use only.

  2. I’m a 65 year old heterosexual male who has been carrying handkerchiefs on my person most of my life. Men and boys carrying handkerchiefs were customary of my generation and long before. The proper use of the handkerchief can be found in several books on men’s style and dress etiquette.
    Two years ago I was around a group of men my age and pulled out my handkerchief and asked if anyone still carried these? To my surprise several men pulled out handkerchiefs of their own. As far as buying used handkerchiefs from a thrift or antique store, I don’t think I would buy a used item that I would use on my face.
    I fold and press my handkerchiefs into sixteenths as well. Great info on how you use each section or as you calls it “each page.”

    1. Hi, Mike! Thanks for sharing your experience. Great point about looking at etiquette books for information about usage. My own “knowledge” is quite informal, mostly just my own experience.

      Funny enough, my mom’s parents used hankies when she was a kid, but she and her siblings always thought they were gross.

      > I don’t think I would buy a used item that I would use on my face.

      Haha to each their own, washing is enough for me!

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