Hand Hemstitched Linen Handkerchiefs

by Daisy

This is basic.

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.

It is not necessary to count them, just try to get the same approximate amount each stitch. Pull the thread through and give it a little tug back to the right to reveal the “hole” you just made.

Put the needle back again into the place you first inserted it and up through the same “hole” you just made, but this time pick up a few threads of the hem.

Pull thread firmly but gently. This is one stitch:

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.

Disclaimer: This post may contain a link to an affiliate.
aardvark October 21, 2009 at 10:59 pm


I’ll hate myself in the morning for giving away this secret, but here’s THE place for inexpensive handkerchief-weight linen. You are looking for at least 3.5 oz. linen – less if you want really fine. Oh great, NOW I have competition.

Tomato Lady October 22, 2009 at 7:07 am

aardvark–Oooh, pretty. I appreciate your sacrifice! Just the thing for a rainy day.

Stewart April 29, 2010 at 2:10 am

Thanks for this. I really enjoyed making handkerchiefs this way. The instructions were clear and easily followed.

Tomato Lady April 29, 2010 at 7:37 am

Stewart–Thank you!

Nancy January 3, 2011 at 9:51 am

Thank-you for these directions! I made alone for my husband this Christmas and plan to make more for gifts!

My only problem was pulling the threads! It took over 5 hours as the threads kept breaking though I tried to be gentle and careful.

Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated!


Tomato Lady January 3, 2011 at 10:01 am

Nancy–It can be tedious. The only thing I can suggest is that some fabrics work better than others. If you have some choice of fabric, I would take a swatch of each and test them out to see which fibers break less and slide out more easily. Best of luck!

D January 11, 2011 at 4:30 am

thank you for sharing..

i’ve been wanting to do this for the longest time and have been studying instruction in countless books. somehow yr instruction and the clear pictures make it less intimidating.. *off to buy some linen*

j hagberg February 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm

i am looking for linen handkerchiefs that i can crochet lace around with pearls for my niece’s wedding in sept. i used to be able to find them.

Amy Burns March 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Thank you for this! My 14 year old son always carries a linen hankie. He has a thing about textures and doesn’t like the feel of facial tissues. Lately though he’s complained that his hankies aren’t as soft as before. With the advice from above I’ve ordered softened 3.5oz linen and plan on surprising him for his birthday with handmade hankies.

Tomato Lady March 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Amy Burns–He sounds like an old-fashioned gentleman. Hope you (and he) enjoy your hankies.

LaVaughn Ray April 7, 2011 at 8:44 am

Thank you so very much for these instructions. I ordered 10 yards of Irish linen
about 10 years ago to make handkerchiefs for my whole family, but couldn’t find a
pattern that was simple enough for me to follow. This morning, I was thinking about my materal stash and came into the computer and there you were. Thanks again.

LaVaughn Ray

joss July 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Congrats on writing what I’m sure are the only sewing instructions to ever choke me up.

R July 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

I found this an hour ago, and I already made my first attempt on a scrap of linen with great success! Thank you for posting this! Your instructions are both informative and enjoyable to read.

Becca January 6, 2012 at 9:30 am

Hello! Can’t wait to make a handkerchief for my dad but I’m kind of confused on how this stitch actually hems to get rid of the raw edge! Thanks so much for the tutorial

Smac February 28, 2012 at 5:00 pm

I am so excited about finding your instructions. I am learning to crochet and can’t wait to purchase some linen, hemstitch and crochet a beautiful edging. Thank you for being so generous with your instructions.

hamletta March 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm

@Becca, the edge is folded twice, so the raw edge is encased in that outer edge, beyond the drawn work.

@aardvark, thank you so much for the tip! The hanky-weight linen at that site is a steal!

My church choir director is a hanky-bearing gentleman, and I want to make him some lovely hand-monogrammed hankies for Christmas. Since it’s only the second week of Lent, I just might complete the project in time … for Christmas 2015.

Thanks for the instructions, Miss Lady!

marilee August 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

What thread did you use to sew the hemstitches?

Daisy August 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

MARILEE–I used ordinary cotton sewing thread.

Betty Turner October 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Hey out there in cyberspace. I am new to all this stuff and doubt that I have time to try to learn the above procedure. Problem is – I am looking for a 11″ square of white linen material that is hemstitched. My wedding hankie crochet is in good condition but the material itself is shot and I want to attach the crocheted part to new material. Anything available ? Are you really in Amherst Ohio right up the road from me? Can you believe I called the store where my mother used to purchase hemstitched hankies and they no longer have them. Of courst it was close to fifty years ago – go figure. Will look for your answer -this should have been done long time ago. Thanks for any help you can provide. Betty

Daisy October 9, 2012 at 5:08 am

Betty Turner–Please check your email, I sent you a message there!

Betty Turner November 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm

I would like to send a thank you to the great person who sold me a hem stitched hanky to repair my wedding hanky which I wanted to pass on to my only grand daughter for her wedding. She encouraged me that I could do this altho I did end up attaching the original crocheted lace onto the new hanky with teeny, tiny stitches but I only used a sharp needle. My granddaughter was thrilled with it and it did turn out great. Maybe, since I couldn’t find someone else out there to do it, I will open myself to a new career. Got to hurry tho, my eyes are getting old.

Mary June 20, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Hi Deanna, Love your website, but how about Gary Cooper in “Friendly Persuasion”, If you haven’t seen this one rent it, as it is my very favorite!

Patricia July 5, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Looking for someone to hemstitch linen/cotton in order to crochet an edging.
Can you recommend someone who does this work on the USA?

Nancy Rudy June 29, 2014 at 8:16 am

Thank you so much for sharing this – I’ve made a few of the men’s sized ones and have monogrammed them, but my love is crochet edgings.. so have made many ladies sized ones including one with a crinoline lady.

Christine August 4, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Beautiful. I used this hem as the base for my handkerchief hems (with a slight variation). Thanks for sharing!


CarolinePyne January 28, 2015 at 1:56 am

I am making a large tablecloth with french cross stitch and was thinking of doing something like this for the edging. Do I use this method, or can you recommend something else? Thanks!

Daisy January 28, 2015 at 5:54 pm

CarolinePyne–That would be pretty painstaking and time-consuming on a large tablecloth. Of course it’s possible, but it just depends on how much you are willing to put into it. A simple mitered-corner hem would be easier and still lovely.

Patty Collins April 14, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Do you hem by hand or on the machine?

Daisy April 15, 2015 at 10:56 am

Patty Collins–In this case, this was all by hand.

Judith July 10, 2015 at 11:54 am

I have made these mostly according to your very clear directions, but I do have a correction: you can’t fold 1/2″ twice in an area that is only 1″. It’s like folding a business letter to fit in an envelope–you need to only fold a little less than 1/3″ and then fold that 1/3″ over again for this to come out correctly for a 1″ area. This will give you about 1/3″ hem rather than 1/2.” If you want a full half inch in your hem area, you need to leave an area 1.5″ wide to do it with–your directions would work perfectly for that. I’m amazed no one else has noticed this. That being said, your pictures and descriptions are excellent and I’ve made 7 linen hankies, so far. It’s quite addictive. 🙂

Daisy July 11, 2015 at 5:28 am

Judith–Thanks, yes, I can be a bit inexact. You make an excellent point about the measurements. That extra bit will make things much more accurate. 7, wow! I’m impressed!

Judith July 11, 2015 at 7:59 am

LOL! I was on vacation at our camper on a beautiful creek in the Appalachian mountains and it was very relaxing to sew these while sitting out by the roaring creek, just chillaxin’.

Daisy July 11, 2015 at 10:17 am


lorraine Nicholas September 7, 2015 at 5:39 am

Thanks so much for this. I have read so many instructions for drawn thread hems and it has never made sense to me. Looked at your photos and it finally clicked.

Paulette McWaters October 26, 2015 at 9:19 am

I have some napkins mom gave me 45 years ago with this edging. I recently started making linen items for our church, I use medium weight, and FabricStore.com, has the loveliest linen. I bought light weight linen to make napkins for my married daughters for Christmas. This is exactly the stitch I wanted, God bless, for taking the time to do such clear instructions and pictures.

jeannine pelletier December 9, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Wow très bien fait ,je peut avoir en francais

Daisy December 9, 2015 at 10:34 pm

Jeannine Pelletier–Merci pour vos aimables mots. Un jour, peut-etre, mais mon francais n’est pas tres bon, malheureusement.

Adrien March 6, 2017 at 5:07 am

Thank you so much for this. I was taught this in grade 4…..52 years ago?……so so lovely. And I’m left handed……might have to out the photos in front of the mirror???

Mary May 15, 2017 at 7:07 pm

Hi! After steam pressing, etc., you are ready to begin the hemstitching. You mention a needle, and securing the end of the thread in the fold. What I’m not sure about is this: is the thread one of the threads you pulled out? and do you thread the needle, tie a knot in the end, then secure it in the fold? I am unsure if your sewing thread is linen, cotton, or other and if it matters. Sorry if I am confused about this but I want to do it right so my result can look as beautiful as yours! Thanks so much for teaching this!

Daisy May 16, 2017 at 6:45 am

Mary–Hello! The thread pulled from the fabric isn’t strong enough to sew with, so use a regular sewing thread in a color that matches your fabric, hiding the knot in the fold as you said. I hope you enjoy sewing your creation and let me know if you have any other questions. I’m here to help!

Mary May 16, 2017 at 6:41 pm

Thanks Daisy! I am making some “proofing” (for bread dough) linen squares for my chef husband. Am getting the fabric from the SF Baking Institute website and want to finish the edges once I cut the squares. I’ll post to let you know how it turns out.

Daisy May 16, 2017 at 8:00 pm

Nice! Yes, let me know how it goes.

Mary May 21, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Just got the fabric. It is the texture and thickness of burlap! Pulling the thread to make the first edge was dicey; the thread broke a few times along the 31″ width of the fabric. Since the selvage edges are dense and intact, I think I will just hem the cut sides. The couche fabric is indeed linen but its density is hard to work with by hand.

Mary May 21, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Daisy, I hope someday to be able to use your technique on handkerchief linen. But, I couldn’t make it work on the thick couche linen. Thanks for your help.

Daisy May 22, 2017 at 7:05 am

Mary–Yes, the fabric has to cooperate. Maybe attach a nice strand of red embroidery floss to a thread and pull it through to embed a contrasting color along the border or just embroider a running stitch or 2 along the hemmed edge? Would add a handmade touch . . . ? Of course it IS handmade however you do it and simple and plain linen is never a bad idea.

Previous post:

Next post: