The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

A Gift of Handkerchiefs

When you think of gifts for friends, you probably don’t think Gee, I could give them a handkerchief! Or maybe you do. I know that every morning I tuck a clean hankie into my pocket before I start my day. They are so handy for a variety of things: wiping a smudge off your computer monitor or cell phone shield; cleaning fingertips after a salty snack; protecting a cracker or two in your pocket as you head toward the sofa with a hot cuppa. And yes, during allergy season they come in handy for their intended use. But a gift of handkerchiefs?

Nothing can be a more pleasing gift at Christmas or at any other “remembering time” than a pretty handkerchief – or more than one.

Needlecraft Magazine, October 1921

Actually, special hankies appeared as part of the annual gift selections throughout the Twenties and Thirties. They were used through the 1960s and beyond by many. If you find yourself in an antique mall, at least one vendor sells vintage handkerchiefs. They appear with hand embroidery, with lace edgings, or both. And many of them were hand made.

What you need to make handkerchiefs

You don’t need much to make a handkerchief for a friend. A square of soft 100% cotton like batiste will do. Or you can use Irish linen or cotton lawn if you want to get fancy. You can crochet, knit, or tat a lace edging for it, or not. Some of the nicest ones I see in the periodicals have beautiful embroidery but no real edging to speak of. Others, in the edging instruction manuals, offer gorgeous edgings but no embroidery.

Cut your fabric into a square. Anything from 10 x 10 inches to 12 x 12 inches will do. One yard of 36 – 42-inch wide fabric will give you 9 handkerchiefs. A quarter of an inch both ways will be used by hems, 1/8 inch per edge in a rolled hem.

If you like you can hem the square by hand, using a rolled hem. This is, frankly, the nicest way to do it, but it takes the most time. Here’s a YouTube video on how to sew a rolled hem by hand. Once you get the hang of it, it can be a relaxing time.

If the square design has one or more colored stripes or geometric figures in the fabric in addition to embroidery, you will want to add the stripes of color before finishing the rolled hem.

Embroidery Designs 1 and 2

The wreath

The first two designs appear together. The top handkerchief is made of white lawn, a light, sheer cotton. The wreath that appears in the corner is about an inch in diameter. Place the largest rose facing the corner, with three roses going up each side from there. The buds at the top of the wreath are French knots. Use green embroidery thread for the leaves. Roses can be satin stitched in a shade of pink, including dark rose, with a darker color center.

The lines on the first handkerchief are made by pulling two threads from the fabric and replacing them with a thread of dark rose embroidery floss. Thread one strand of embroidery floss on a fine needle and weave in and out over the threads from one side of the fabric to the other. Follow the thin line made from the pulled threads. The original cloth had three lines on each side, dividing the handkerchief into sixteen equal squares. Do this before hamming the fabric. You can use one line on each side of the embroidered corner and it will look splendid.

If your fabric looks like the threads are too close together to pull well, simply take a strand of embroidery floss and create a running stitch from one side of the fabric to the other.

When you finish your embroidery and the rolled hem, work a cross stitch border around the square, over the hem. Use the dark rose floss, two strands.

The garland

The bottom handkerchief uses the top embroidery pattern below. Embroider the three roses in shades of pink. The medium circles in the middle are blue forget-me-nots. At each end you can use pink to create rosebuds with French knots. Use green for the leaves and stems.

Now, about the squares. The handkerchief will look good without them, but if you want to include them, this is how to do it. Inside the 1/8-inch border set aside for your rolled hem, draw two 1-inch lines that sit 1 inch from the corner. You’ll have a one inch square that sits inside the hem allowance.

Now measure down from the point you just drew, on the left arm of the square, 3/8 inch. Draw a line 3/8 inch into the square, and then 2 1/4 inches to the left. That gives you the long line.

Starting at the end of the line you just made, go up 3/4 inch. Turn, and go 3/8 inch back toward the corner, and then turn again. Go down towards the hem 1 3/8 inch.

You’re almost finished. Now return to the long line you made, and measure 3/8 inch towards the corner. Go up 3/8 inch and then over 3/4 inch. You have just completed one half the corner with three stacked blocks. Repeat for the other side. All the squares are 3/8 inch.

Once you have all this drawn in you can embroider it with running stitch, back stitch, or you can attempt to withdraw threads and replace them with the blue you use for the forget-me-nots.

Finish the rolled hem, and using 1 strand of blue, cross stitch through the rolled hem.

Here are the embroidery patterns for Handkerchiefs 1 and 2:

Embroidery design 3

These two designs are perfect for your Twenties costume party. The top corner that appears in the illustration is nothing more than the wreath above, with a small circle of black fabric appliquéd to the handkerchief and then the wreath is embroidered over the join. Embroider the roses in pinks, blues, or whatever shade harmonizes well with your background fabric (in the photo the fabric was terra cotta colored) and the black circle.

The second example here is Very Twenties. One might even say Perfectly Twenties. The fabric is white.

Two and a quarter inches from the corner, draw a stem line 1 1/4 inches long. Leave 1/2 inch space, and draw the second stem line 1 5/8 inches. Leave another 1/2 inch space, and draw the third line 1 1/4 inches long again.

You can pull threads from the fabric for the stem and weave in embroidery floss, or you can use an embroidery stitch like backstitch, running stitch, etc. to create the stem.

The stems are dark blue. The centers of the flowers are brown. Make the centers with French knots or short, straight stitches going in a variety of directions (sometimes called seed stitch). The outside of the flowers are made with bullion stitch. The first and third flowers use orange bullion stitch, and the middle flower’s bullion stitches are in yellow.

Use the same blue as the stems for the sepals, those little petals at the base of the flower heads. The rolled hem is covered in dark blue cross stitch.

Refresh yourself

If you need an embroidery refresher, my series of vintage embroidery lessons start here.

The Creative Corner

How to Style a Monogram

Monograms. They’ve been around for well over 150 years in popular use and culture. Women’s magazines from 1865 and before show monogram styles that could be used to decorate linens, clothing, and more. The letter writer often used initials to seal an envelope in wax.

How do you put a monogram together, and where can you use it? From the 1910s to the 1950s, a monogrammed handkerchief made a nice, thoughtful gift for a friend. In the 1930s to 1960s, shirts and blouses with a monogram looked sharp and trendy. The 1980s saw a resurgence in monograms on sweaters and purses, among other things.

1920s-30s monogram alphabet illustration in blue, orange, green, and purple.
Monograms were huge for those who wanted to mark their stuff in a stylish way. This pattern advertisement shows available single monograms that purchasers could apply to all kinds of things.

No matter what decade of vintage you love, you can find a way to work your monogram into it. Or the monogram of someone you love. However, just how do you do that? Believe it or not, even something as simple as monogramming has rules.

The Rules of Monograms

There are certain ways to put a monogram together, whether you plan to decorate your bedsheets or your writing stationery.

  • If you want to use one letter only, it’s called a single monogram. You can use either the first initial of the first name, or the first initial of the last name. In a single monogram it doesn’t matter. Mostly, it depends what you want to project. Do you want S for Smythe, a last name, or A for Annabelle or Adonis, a first name?
  • When you use two initials, you use the first initials of both first and last name. Each initial is the same script style, and they are the same size. One letter is not larger or smaller than the other one.
  • If you plan to use three initials, it’s called a triple letter monogram. And there are two ways to do it. If the name is Adonis Stanley Laurel, and all the letters are the same size, they read left to right: ASL. If one initial is larger than the other two letters, which you often see in stylized or stylish monograms, that large letter in the middle stands for the last name. So the monogram looks like this: ALS.
  • If you want a monogram for two married people, the usual way to do it is Spouse-Last-Spouse. So if Adonis marries Dana, their combined monogram is ALD, with a larger L in the middle.

What You Can Do with a Monogram

Monograms are versatile. They mark your stuff. But more importantly, they mark your style. Are you an Old-English-Gothic kind of person? A monogram will reveal that. Do you tend toward Art Deco? Monogram everything in sight, and everyone will know.

Monograms are the personalized automobile license plate of the past. A nicely done monogram on a party invitation indicated that you had good taste. Nicely monogrammed hand towels transmitted not only that you knew who you were in the world, but it also showed off your skill with a needle. A blouse with a monogrammed first letter broadcast whether you were playful – or not, depending on the lettering style.

In a world where much of the fabric was white, monograms came in very useful. Everyone carried a handkerchief. While that little square could be made of silk, linen, rayon, or cotton, it was almost always white. Two people dropping handkerchiefs at the same time could end in chaos! Not really, but having a monogrammed handkerchief did help if there was any confusion or if an article got left behind.

Monogrammed sheets and towels were the sign of a well-appointed linen closet. Putting an initial or two onto the top bedsheet and pillow cases not only gave these white linens a bit of decoration, but the effort also acted as a This Is My House label. It signified to friends and family that this was a house that took order and ownership seriously. Or not too seriously, depending on the initials’ style.

Paint your monogram onto a Welcome sign for your front entry. Or put your initial onto clothing or luggage. Make an initial into a pin that can move from item to item. Cover a favorite book, and decorate the cover with your monogram. Make table napkins or placemats and decorate with your monogram. Take a boring stretch of wall space and spice it up with your monogram. Bring this time-honored tradition back to life, and celebrate the initials that signify you.