It’s a handkerchief.
It’s the Brooks Brothers shirt of handkerchiefs, the Gary Cooper shy smile of handkerchiefs, the firm handshake of handkerchiefs.
Make one for someone who really uses handkerchiefs, every day. Someone who takes one from his top dresser drawer each morning, folds it over firmly, and puts it in his back pocket just as surely as he never forgets his wallet. As surely as he never forgot to give his wife a kiss every morning before work. Or every evening when he got home. For forty-five years.
Select a fine, lightweight linen fabric. It will get softer and softer with every wash.
For each handkerchief, you will cut an 18″ square. This makes an approximately 17″ handkerchief. For this I prefer to use the drawn thread technique to get an even square. This is also good practice because you will be drawing more threads to make the hem. To make this easier, you may want to cut out a larger piece of fabric, perhaps 19″ square so you don’t have to wrestle with an entire yard or more of cloth while you do this. Measure out 18″ and make a small cut. Tease out a thread right at the cut and pull it out gently, shirring the fabric. Pull the thread out completely. You will notice a faint line where the thread once was. This is your cutting line. Make another small cut at the next 18″ mark. Draw another thread to get your second cutting line. Continue in this way until you have drawn out a thread on each of the four sides. Cut out your square carefully along the lines of drawn thread.
Measure one inch from one edge. Isolate a single thread at this one inch point (tweezers are helpful for this) and give it a tug, holding the fabric firmly in your other hand. Carefully draw out the thread, pulling gently and shirring with the other hand to help slide out the thread.
Now you will pull out a few more threads next to the one you just drew out. How many will depend on the thread count of your fabric, but it will probably be three to four threads total. Make sure the subsequent threads are drawn to the inside of the first drawn thread so the width of the hem is not diminished. Repeat for the other three sides of the square.
Take the linen to your ironing board and fill up the steam iron. Turn over the raw edge just shy of 1/2 ” all around. Leave a little more than half of the distance to the beginning of the drawn threads so you can turn the second fold easily without bulk. Rotate your square in one direction, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, it doesn’t matter which way, just let the pressed-over corners “chase” each other all the way around.
Now press down a second fold, being sure that the fold line comes up to, but doesn’t overlap the beginning of the drawn threads.
Once the folds are cool, open out one of the corners. The creases will have formed a collection of small squares. The square in the very tip-most corner may be cut out without incident and will help reduce the bulk of the final corner.
If you are terribly squeamish about this you don’t have to do it, but you will thank yourself later if you do. Repeat for the other three corners. Fold the corners back and steam press them back down.
The next step is the hemstitch. I recommend that you get a scrap of the same linen (about a 4×4 square) and use it for practice. Prepare the hem as above along two sides so you have one corner and practice your technique to get the hang of it before you work on your actual handkerchief.
This technique may sound a bit complicated in writing but it is not difficult in reality. Hold the square of linen with the body of linen toward your body and the hem away from you. Beginning at a point near a corner, secure the end of the thread in the fold. Traveling from right to left (you resourceful and intrepid lefties are left to your own recalculations here–I salute you) place the needle under several of the threads of the drawn thread channel.
The object is to make a little wedge shape with the blank spaces created by the successive stitches. One of the benefits of the practice piece is to help you get a feel for how many threads to take up to get the nicest effect–too close and you won’t get a wedge–too far apart and you will make a tuck in the hem.
The corners are a bit of a challenge. Several layers of fabric have to be stitched as one, and it is difficult to get a distinct hemstitch here. Cutting out the corners helps some (see above). The handkerchief will look just as nice if you make a nice neat whipstitch over the edges and abandon the hemstitching on the corners.
Once you feel comfortable with your hemstitching, move from the practice piece and hem the handkerchief. Wash it normally and iron while damp for presenting.
If you want to make a woman’s handkerchief, a dimension of 13 inc
hes will make a 12 inch square. Vary the depth of the hem as you like and calculate the size of your square accordingly. A very narrow hemstitched hem, for example, makes the ideal basis for a crochet lace trim.
And if you don’t know who Gary Cooper is, for heaven’s sake kick yourself and then rent High Noon. Or Pride of the Yankees. Or Sergeant York. A Farewell to Arms. For Whom the Bell Tolls. You get the idea.