Ask Lily Beth ☞ How to Use a Handkerchief

I do this for myself because I am my own fatherland, and my handkerchief is my flag.

Reinhold Messner

So this arrive in my inbox this morning, from Steve:

Dear Lily Beth – after opening a handkerchief and blowing (?) your nose, how is it best to fold it up?

First of all, Steve, bully for you for using a handkerchief in the first place. But for the rest of our readers, let’s do a little analysis first to catch everyone up.

Handkerchief vs. Pocket Square

A pocket square is a handkerchief by definition, but a handkerchief is not always a pocket square. (It’s like that rule you learned in geometry in the 3rd grade: a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t always a square.)

A handkerchief, more or less, is just a square piece of thin fabric. Kerchief is the bastard-translation of the French word couvre-chef, a piece of cloth tied around the head or neck for protective or decorative purposes, and a handkerchief is just what it sounds like – a piece of cloth meant for the hand.

Cowboys, for example, carried (and still carry) bandanas, which are a form of kerchief, for good reason: they keep dust out of your mouth and nose when you’re riding your horse, they keep sweat off your face, they can temporarily bind a wound or be used to stop bleeding, they can be used as a makeshift knapsack to carry small items, the list goes on and on.

Contemporary urban men carry smaller versions (handkerchiefs) for much the same reason: practicality.

A pocket square, on the other hand, is indeed a handkerchief, but is purely decorative under all but the most dire of circumstances. (If I ever catch one of you removing your silk pocket square to blow your nose and then replacing it in your outside breast pocket, I’ll strangle  you with it. If one of your party goers has a bit too much to drink and takes a tumble resulting in a gaping head wound, you’re allowed to use your pocket square to apply pressure until the medics arrive. That’s it.)

Because of this reason, pocket squares are typically made out of nicer fabric and are more decorative than your average handkerchief meant to be carried around in your pants pocket or inside your suit jacket.

Why should a contemporary man carry a handkerchief?

The quickest way to expose someone’s ignorance is by their overly dramatic reactions to things. Case in point, when someone expresses irate disgust at the carrying of a handkerchief and launches into a lecture on hygiene and the various breeding cycles of bacterium, that’s your cue that they don’t know jack shit.

There are plenty of practical reasons any man worth his salt carries a handkerchief, and none of them have to do with illness. You’d be surprised how often I get this question, because Kleenex and other disposable forms of tissue now exist, but I think we’ve all been there when you’ve been caught by a completely unexpected sneeze or coughing fit in public and you’re left with a disintegrating papery mess in your hands and no where to put it. A handkerchief, in addition to being more environmental, allows your to muffle a cough or a sneeze with confidence, and doesn’t leave you holding slush all through the second act of La Boheme.

My husband, Jack, has always carried a handkerchief for this reason – because he is a man of practicality. He’s a theatrical technician by trade, and he never knows when a dust-ridden sneeze will catch him on a 60 foot ladder, or mud will be splashed on his glasses while loading lumber into a truck bed, or he’ll have to hand it over to me to stifle crying during a midnight screening of Bright Star. He carries two at all times – a primary handkerchief and a backup – and replaces them daily.

An anecdote on men carrying handkerchiefs – women notice: A good friend of ours has also always carried handkerchiefs, religiously so. All the women in our group have always nodded approvingly at this practice, for a start. But second, he met his wife while they were both teaching school – she, art, and he, history. He’s a larger gentleman, with muscles pulsating under his gingham shirts, and once at a dinner she confided to me that she’d come into work one day distraught over having to put her dog of ten years down. This is the same dog that had helped pull her out of the bathtub time and time again after she’d had knee surgery – in short, your average wonderful dog. Our friend found her crying over a cup of untouched coffee in the breakroom and silently handed her his checked handkerchief over her shoulder. She took it, sobbed into it, and then stared at the tiny blue-and-white squares and then up at him, and admitted that she was so moved that a man who looks like he could chop firewood with no problem was graceful enough to not only carry a handkerchief, but offer it to her without hesitation or question. They’ve been together, part of a matching set, ever since.

On the note of paper tissue vs. handkerchiefs: I once had a girlfriend who had broken up with a long-term boyfriend, and called in quite dire straights. We’ll call her Becca. She asked Rose and me to meet her at a local bar (you’ll remember my trusty wing-woman, Rose, from previous stories such as The Case for Books and Have Spouse, Will Travel.) Once there, she pulled out a massive Ziplock bag stuffed full of mentholated Kleenex proportionate to her deep levels of despair. This meant that Rose and I spent all evening occasionally watering an unfortunate potted palm with a glass of wine when poor Becca wasn’t looking and picking up her litter of tissue hither, thither, and yon so that the bar staff wouldn’t be left with that unfortunate task.

The lesson here is that tissues are disposable, and for some reason this encourages us to use a lot of them, and furthermore, to behave more poorly in public than we might have otherwise. Sure, you can tell me that you’re a bastion of tissue etiquette – a damn expert, if you please – but the very act of having to retrieve even the most carefully folded of tissues from your pocket and then attempting to find a proper place to dispose of it before it disintegrates into mush takes your sauve level down a notch.

The Etiquette of Handkerchiefs

Perfumed handkerchiefs were originally used to muffle unpleasant smells (look, septic systems didn’t always exist, okay? There was a lot of shit in the street, in addition to people generally being more…unwashed… than they are today.) Past that, handkerchiefs were the best way to prevent the spread of germs into open air before the invention of disposable tissues.

In contemporary culture, the rules have changed slightly, but not enough to warrant an ill-advised lack of a handkerchief. If you’ve got a nasty cold that you must take out into public, then carry disposable tissues, and walk or turn away from people to use them. We understand. You’re sick, and the world can’t always stop when you’re sick – kids still have to be dropped off at school, reports must still be turned in, etc.

But for average feeling-fine use, a handkerchief is always my recommendation. Handkerchiefs are the preparation for things that will catch you unaware, like coughing from a sudden cloud of dust, watery eyes from an unexpected puff of pollen or bright sunlight, wiping your face when you didn’t plan on running a marathon in your overcoat to catch your train, being caught in a rainstorm, etc.

In addition, there are some foreseeable events where a handkerchief is still advisable over disposable tissues. If you carry a handkerchief at no other time in your life, carry them places you know there are apt to be emotion but you will likely be stuck in one place: weddings, funerals, sad movies or performances, etc.

To use a handkerchief properly, open and use the middle, then fold. If you need to use it more than once – and it happens – use the new middle you created by folding, then fold again. You can get 2-3 good uses out of a handkerchief before you resort to your trusty backup hankie. Remember to throw them in the laundry in the evening upon returning home, and replace with fresh ones in the morning.

And furthermore, a man doesn’t ask for his handkerchief back once it’s lent, for obvious reasons. What do you do if you’re the woman (or man) left holding a borrowed handkerchief? A million years ago, a woman’s maid would take the handkerchief, launder it, and return it. These days, it’s probably just you, honey – do the same: take it home, launder it, and return it.

Where does one even get handkerchiefs?

Once upon a time, I sent away for Jack’s cotton handkerchiefs, had them embroidered by a fine little shop in Texas. They’ve since closed and left me a little heartbroken.

Your typical department stores will carry them, as well as some other tried-and-true retailers:

  • Neiman’s has a 10 pack for $22 (tied cutely in burlap none the less)
  • Macy’s is carrying a 5-pack of Nautica handkerchiefs on sale
  • Saks carries some beautiful 2-packs of Derek Rose handkerchiefs for $40 (maybe a little pricey for every-day, but makes a wonderful gift)
  • Thomas Pink has beautiful, bold handkerchiefs ranging from $10 apiece, plain, to $25 apiece for patterned.
  • Simonnot Godard out of France does gorgeous work with high-quality cotton (some say “the best in the world”); available at Barney’s, Paul Stuart, and the like. (Speaking of French, if you see the terms “mouchoir” or “pochette,” that’s what you’re looking for. Mouchoir is handkerchief, essentially, and pochette is pocket handkerchief.)
  • Duluth has handkerchiefs that are meant to be put to work for prices ranging from $6 to $20. If you’re looking for a heavier, softer fabric, Duluth has you covered.
  • If you can run a sewing machine, you can make your own. If your Singer does letters, like mine, you can monogram them yourself – otherwise, you can take them to someone who specializes in monograms. (If you’re Googling, the key word you want to look for in your area is “embroidery.”)
One Response to “Ask Lily Beth ☞ How to Use a Handkerchief”
  1. John Jasper says:

    Very helpful advice. I’ve been considering going environmental and carrying handkerchiefs and was finally convinced when I saw my daughter folding one of hers (she lives in Madagascar but is back for a visit!) I took the plunge and bought some today and as I always do, checked the internet for advice and sure enough, up popped this page! Now I’m ready for action.

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