Handkerchief season is here!

My father uses handkerchiefs.  I’d always thought of it as one of his idiosyncrasies.  Normal people used paper tissues.  I always found it kind of weird, though, that so many people use a tissue just briefly, to remove a few drops of watery stuff from the nose, and then throw it away.  What a waste of money and resources!  Obviously, the right way to use a tissue was to wipe or blow into it a few times, until it was used up, and then throw it away.

When I was in college, I caught an extremely drippy cold at a time when I simply didn’t have the option of staying home, warmly ensconced between the tissue box and the wastebasket; I had to go to campus every day and run around to classes, research, and meetings.  I chose outfits with lots of pockets and packed a tissue into each pocket before leaving the house.  I thought about nose-blowing technique in more detail than I’d ever wanted to, in order to utilize the full absorptive power of each paper molecule. I used each tissue as much as possible, then threw it away, and when I started on the last tissue I restocked all my pockets.  My face was rubbed raw and stinging from the friction of wet tissues.  When I was feeling better and put all my germy clothes into the washing machine, I checked all the pockets…but somehow, a tissue stowed away, dissolved in the wash, and left disgusting little shreds all over all my clothes!  Overall, it was a miserable experience, but that’s what colds are like, right?

In the winter of 2001-2002, I had a series of respiratory tract infections, each of which kept me blowing my nose every few minutes for more than a week.  The first one was just like all previous colds.  My red and peeling nose was still healing on Christmas, when I received a half-dozen organic cotton flannel hankies.  They felt nice and soft on my tender skin.  I used them for my nose’s slight dribbling due to cold weather, and I was surprised to find that each hanky continued to look and feel “clean” for several days with this light usage.  When the next illness hit in February, I figured I’d start out with the hankies and then switch to the box of special super-soft tissues Daniel brought me.  The six hankies lasted two days!  Then I opened the tissues, and not only was I having to use them at a ridiculous rate, but paper tissues were so clearly inferior to flannel that I could not tolerate them! I wasn’t feeling well enough to go down into the chilly basement to do laundry, so I hand-washed my hankies and dried them on the radiator and rubbed them together to soften them, and they were like new again!  I looked at the wastebasket full of tissues and thought, “What a pathetic excuse for handkerchiefs!  How did they ever get any market share??”

I’ve used handkerchiefs instead of tissues, as much as possible, ever since.  These are the advantages:

  • A hanky is durable.  It doesn’t tear down the middle and dump the contents of my nose all over my hands.  It doesn’t leave shreds stuck to my face.
  • A hanky is not ruined by getting wet.  Use a tissue to absorb a small amount of moisture, and even if you can keep it from sticking to itself or tearing, when it dries it’s puckered and stiff and used-looking.  A hanky used on stuff that’s mostly water (like my nose’s reaction to cold weather, which is mostly condensation) dries to pristine condition.  Even if folded up in a pocket, it dries surprisingly quickly.
  • A hanky is washable.  If you are sick and home alone, you don’t have to go out and buy more.  If you forget to take a hanky out of your pocket before laundering clothes, it turns into a scrunchy little wad (which didn’t get clean in the middle and needs to be washed again) but it doesn’t leave annoying shreds all over the rest of your laundry.
  • Cloth is easier on the skin than paper.  A lengthy period of frequent nose-blowing still damages my skin, but it isn’t nearly as bad as it was with tissues (even the super-soft name-brand kind) and takes longer to start, so I have more time to think, “Hey, this is a major runny nose.  I’d better start washing and olive-oiling my face every couple hours to protect it.”
  • Hankies cost much less per use than tissues.  If you make them out of old clothes (see below) they cost nothing!  There’s no extra cost for laundering them, unless you use a really huge number, because they’re so small that they easily fit into a load of laundry.
  • Hankies are part of my wardrobe.  When I’m healthy and use only one hanky per day, I can choose one to match my outfit.  When I’m sick, fun colors and prints give me a little distraction.  I know tissues come in colors and prints too…but those often are accomplished with dyes that irritate skin or aggravate allergies, and they’re still made of flimsy paper that has a very temporary, mass-produced, uncomforting feeling to it, in my opinion.

The main argument in favor of disposable tissues is that they put germs into the trash, instead of being carried around in people’s pockets.  That doesn’t work for me, though, as any tissues I use get carried around too.  I think hankies may be more sanitary than tissues in that they’re less likely to let stuff from my nose soak through onto my hands.  (Really, the most important way to reduce the spread of germs is to wash your hands after blowing your nose, no matter what you blow it on.)  At any rate, since switching to hankies I haven’t found that my illnesses last longer or recur sooner than with tissues.  I do disinfect and de-slime hankies used for an illness, by soaking in hot water with white vinegar or Bac-Out before putting them in the washing machine.  (A zippered mesh bag keeps hankies from getting stuck under the agitator or lost inside larger garments.)

After a few years of handkerchief experimentation, these are my personal preferences in hanky size and fabric: The best size is 8-9 inches square.  Folded in fourths, it fits into the pocket of jeans or coat.  (When blowing your nose, put it between two layers of cloth and point it toward the folded corner, to avoid leakage.)  There is no need to buy expensive organic flannel, except of course to support organic farming, but cotton flannel is a lot better than synthetic blends.  When Nicholas was born, his Grandma Elsa brought us some hemmed flannel squares she’d made from old pajamas, which we found very useful for wiping his drool and spit-up, and which also make good hankies.  I didn’t have time to make more myself, so I bought some of these flannel baby wipes which are the perfect size!  I was going to write, “Unfortunately, they only come in kids’ prints,” but since the last time I looked she’s started making them in solid colors too!  I have made some hankies by cutting squares out of the good parts of worn-out cotton knit garments.  They are far softer than new fabric.  One advantage to knit is that it ravels very little so doesn’t need to be hemmed.  However, knit is not as absorbent or sturdy as flannel, so for major runny noses I prefer flannel.

Paper tissues still have a role in my life.  I use them when I’m away from home and have forgotten or used up my hanky.  In other words, paper tissues are an emergency back-up product.  I’ve come to feel that way about most disposable things that many people use exclusively.  Every time I try using the real thing instead of the disposable alternative, I very quickly realize that the real thing is superior.  It’s happened with hankies, picnic-ware, napkins, water bottles, coffee cups, gift wrap, my child’s diapers, my feminine gadgets, shopping bags, containers for leftover food, and more.

Happy Handkerchief Season!  You deserve real hankies! (Hey, Dad…why didn’t you tell me?)

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

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