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All about handkerchiefs

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Linen handkerchief

A handkerchief, also called a handkercher or hanky, is a form of a kerchief, typically a hemmed square of thin fabric that can be carried in the pocket or purse, and which is intended for personal hygiene purposes such as wiping one's hands or face, or blowing one's nose. A handkerchief is also sometimes used as a purely decorative accessory in a suit pocket.


The material of a handkerchief can be symbolic of the social-economic class of the user, not only because some materials are more expensive, but because some materials are more absorbent and practical for those who use a handkerchief for more than style. Handkerchiefs can be made of cotton, cotton-synthetic blend, synthetic fabric, silk, or linen.

Handkerchiefs were also used, especially by children, as an impromptu way to carry around small items when a bag or basket was unavailable. They could also serve as a substitute for a bandage over a small injury. In the United Kingdom, the habit of wearing a handkerchief with tied corners on one's head at the beach has become a seaside postcard stereotype, referenced by the Gumby characters in Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Signals may also be sent by handkerchief, such as the American LGBT handkerchief codes. In Spanish football or in bullfighting, it is a common sight to see supporters waving white handkerchiefs as an expression of deep emotion. It is used both positively, in admiration of an exceptional performance by a team or player, or as a negative sign of disgust at an especially bad performance.

Besides their intended use, they could be used by soldiers, campers, hunters, and other outdoorsmen for cleaning equipment, pre-inspection shoe-buffing, cleaning hands and face, signal flag to attract attention, sweat band, neckerchief, bandanna to protect the nose/mouth from blowing dust or cold, neck sun-protectors on caps or helmets (havelock), tied over a cap to retain it in high winds or to protect the ears in the cold, tie a knot in each corner and use as an emergency substitute sun cap, tie two together for a replacement trousers belt, tie broken camping equipment components together, tear in strips and knot together to provide a securing cord/strap, repair footwear, cut out pieces to patch clothes, cut up as emergency firearms cleaning patches, Molotov cocktail wick (fire-bomb), place a bar of soap or rock in the centre and fold it together and tie a knot for a blackjack, wrap up food, impromptu water or fuel filter (not completely adequate), hot cooking utensil holder, bandage, tourniquet, arm sling, tie on splints, gag and secure prisoners, etc.

Disposable paper handkerchiefs have a long history in Japan where as early as the 17th-century:

"They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice..."

and today the use of a cloth handkerchief is considered old-fashioned or unhygienic to blow the nose in some parts of the world, because they are stored in a pocket or a purse after being used.


Before people used the word handkerchief, the word kerchief alone was common. This term came from two French words: couvrir, which means “to cover,” and chef, which means “head.”

In the time of ancient Greece and Rome, handkerchiefs were often used the way they are today. But in the Middle Ages, kerchiefs were usually used to cover the head.

Then in the 16th century, people in Europe began to carry kerchiefs in their pockets to wipe their forehead or their nose. To distinguish this kind of kerchief from the one used to cover the head, the word hand was added to kerchief.

King Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, is widely believed to have invented the cloth handkerchief, as surviving documents written by his courtiers describe his use of square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. Certainly they were in existence by Shakespeare's time, and a handkerchief is an important plot device in his play Othello.


In addition to carrying for practical purposes, handkerchiefs have long been displayed in the top pocket of men's jackets. Used in this way, they are referred to as a pocket handkerchief or pocket square. As a visible fashion item there are a wide variety of ways to fold a pocket square, ranging from the austere to the flamboyant:

  • The Presidential, perhaps the simplest, is folded at right angles to fit in the pocket.
  • The Westo Four Point fold, the quickest way to achieve a four point fold effect.
  • The TV Fold looks similar but is folded diagonally with the point inside the pocket.
  • The One-point Fold is folded diagonally with the point showing.
  • The Two-point Fold is folded off-centre so the two points do not completely overlap.
  • The Three-point Fold is first folded into a triangle, then the corners are folded up and across to make three points.
  • The Four-point Fold is an off-centre version of the Three-point Fold.
  • The Cagney is basically a backwards version of the Four-point Fold.
  • The Puff or the Cooper is simply shaped into a round puff.
  • The Reverse Puff is like the Puff, except with the puff inside and the points out, like petals.
  • The Astaire is a puff with a point on either side.
  • The Straight Shell is pleated and then folded over to give the appearance of nested shells.
  • The Diagonal Shell is pleated diagonally and then folded.

A man pictured (1901) in a three-piece suit with pocket handkerchief showing

Suits with pocket handkerchief

Men in suits with pocket handkerchief

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