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Vintage Hankies – More Than Sneeze Catchers

Known as the Hanky Lady, Betty Wilson’s first most treasured childhood personal possession was a hanky. As a little girl she would carry them to church, give them as gifts to teachers and learned how to iron them. Now that she is all grown up, she still finds hankies fascinating. Her research to learn more about their history, varieties and current where-a-bouts led to a vast collection of thousands of hankies and reams of interesting information.

She was even more impressed at how these pretty pieces of fabric were active participates in American politics, commerce and society. There was only one thing to do, write a book! Printed and Lace Handkerchiefs: Interpreting A Popular 20th Century Collectible will be available by late summer this year. But in the meantime, a few sweet morsels about appliqué vintage hankies not in the book are revealed here by this month’s guest columnist.

(click on pictures for a larger view)

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

There is nothing more delightful, on a dreary winter day, than to bring out your hankie collection, and sort them every which way! The French word appliqué means applied, so I include any hankies with additionally applied threads, fabrics, or laces within this very large category. Some of the prettiest hankies will use a combination of all the appliqué styles. So, I divide these hankies into more manageable groups according to their most prominent decoration technique.

Embroidered Appliqué My favorite hand-embroidered hankies are from the 1920 and 30s era. They are made using one or two strands of light to medium weight embroidery floss. Combinations of lock, chain, cross-stitch, zigzag or twisted stitches form floral designs, as shown in the close-up pictures of three different embroidered hankies. In the 1920s, hankies were available in decorative gift boxes. These would often-contained three hankies with lace corner insets and simple embroidered flower wreaths.

They were small linen or cotton hankies. Photo 3 shows a nice hankie example from a boxed hankie set. Many embroidered hankies are decorated with a variety of satin stitches. Short and long filling stitches are applied systematically to create color variations for flower petals and the threads do not overlap each other. The color areas flow into each other. Chinese filling stitches are distinguished by well-defined borders between colors. It looks like tiny paint by number flowers.

A three dimensional look can be achieved by using a padded satin stitch. Satin stitching layers on top of each other in opposite directions make this. This was a popular method used on initialed hankies. I recently attended an auction that had a vintage store display box filled with hundreds of vintage paper templates for initials. They were thin tough paper and thread channels could be sewn right over them. I dropped out of the bidding at $250.00. I feel lucky just to have seen such a cabinet.

Perhaps one of these initial templates was use to create this hanky’s perfect B. Fabric Appliqué The techniques to create fabric appliqués are actually quite simple. Linen fabric can be used but light to medium weight 100% cotton is best suited for fabric appliqué. Designs were drawn or traced on fabric and then cut out. Tiny clips were made along the raw edges of each design, at any curves or corners, to aid in later creating a smooth needle-turned edge. Then the cut out shapes were sewn to the main hankie fabric.

The stitches used to attach fabric appliqué can be done by hand or machine. You will see a variety of slip, overhand, straight, zigzag, cross, blanket and feather stitches. Most fabric appliqué hankies were made using only solid color fabrics. Some use only one color of fabric for everything and others use a great variety of solid colors. Favorite motifs are rose wreaths, birds, feathers, wildflowers, and leaves. I have never found any fabric appliqué hankies made with patterned fabrics. I have seen a few hankies where someone took floral fabric and cut out large flowers and then sewed then onto a hankie.

These were not collectible quality or very attractive. Design Templates Do you remember making decorative snowflakes by folding paper into sections and using scissors to cut a decorative design? Well that is the same way templates are made for some fabric appliqué designs. Then the cutout can be used as a template. When the fabric is cut along the traced lines it creates two lovely fabric pieces. One can be used as a center appliqué and the other can be used for a border appliqué.

I can still see pencil marks for the design on this early 20th century hand-sewn green and ivory fabric appliqué hankie. The applied fabric is the same lightweight as the base fabric. The tiny needle turned edges distinguish this seamstress’s excellent work. Often hankies were hand made to match a special dress. Inlay Appliqué Once again, a design can be traced or drawn onto a fabric square. Then, it is stacked onto another fabric, or lace, square and temporarily basted together. Next, a seam is tightly stitched along the traced design. One layer of the fabric, or lace, is then trimmed off 1/8 inch away from the inside seam.

The bottom layer of fabric is then trimmed off 1/8 inch from the outside seam. Finally, the design seams are embellished with a satin stitch to camouflage both sides of the hankies raw edges. Corded Appliqué A fabric or thread cord can be laced through a channel created by either sewing fabric together or created by stitching a channel. The channel can also be stitched over a cord. Sometimes a color thread is used inside the channel to create a lovely colored shadow effect.

This is most commonly found on the hem edges of older higher quality linen and lace hankies. Cutwork Appliqué These designs have fabric cut away from inside area of an appliqué design. It can be used sparingly or elaborately. Cutwork comes in many styles. Sometimes additional threads are embroidered through the open areas to create pretty grid work or design. I like to use this baby blue fabric hankie to show how one color of fabric can be layered to create various color tones.

This is similar to shadow appliqué effects. It has cutwork to accent the flowers center. Shadow Appliqué Here we have mysterious and evasively decorated hankies. The applied decorations appear muted because they are being through a buffer layer of fabric or lace. This yellow hankie is a great example. The fabric was elegantly stitched to the lace border. The lace has not been cut away from the back of the fabric flower so it give a soft airy appearance.

It is beautiful when viewed from either side. Less expensive appliqué hankies can have raw fabric edges showing or peeking through loosely stitched appliqué. So be sure to closely examine appliqué work for quality of workmanship. Colored or white threads can be sewn to the backside of a hankie to fill floral designs and create just a hint of shadowed colors. These little pink blossoms are a good example of colored thread embroidered to a hankies backside to create a soft color fill.

Why aren’t stores selling hankies anymore? Personally, I blame Little Lulu, and her magic tricks, for the demise of the fabric hankies. But, you will have to read my book to get that interesting story! In a nutshell, due to political events, mass consumerism and increased production costs, not to mention disposable paper tissues, hankies are no longer a commercially viable product. But, that is also what makes them a wonderful collectible!

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Small hand embroidered hankies 1920s-30s era.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Small 1920s hankie with lace and several hand embroidered appliqué designs.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Small hand embroidered hankies 1950s-60s era.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

  • First hankie shows petite point embroidered rose.
  • Second hankie has petals made by wrapping threads around a cord made of either fabric or threads.
  • Third hankie shows a variation of satin stitch.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Vintage hanky with perfect embroidered B. Perhaps it contains a think paper template inside its stitches.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

This machine sewen fabric appliqué hankies shows zig zag stitches hiding the raw fabric edges.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

This hankie has fine woven fabric appliqué. It actually appears to be thread embroidered until closely examined.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Green fabric appliqué hankie. It has never been washed so you can still see the pencil tracing of the template design on the fabric.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Hankie showing an nset net corner treatment. Created by layering fabrics and then cutting away sections to create a stained glass window effect.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Vintage corded embroidered initial hankie.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Vintage Normandy Lace style hankie with cording. Cording is at the edges of each lace section and fabric seam.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Blue fabric appliqué hankie with cutwork.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

White appliqué hankie with cutwork.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Small appliqué stitches makes this hanky beautiful from either side.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

A soft pink color fill is achieved by sewing dark pink embroidery thread to the reverse of this white hankie.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

This is a vintage promotional counter display of Little LuLu and a famous brand of disposable tissues.

Betty still has hundreds more hankies and information to share. You can view them on her website www.OldHankies.com. You are also invited to e-mail her at Betty@oldhankies.com with any hankie comments or questions.

Watch for her hanky book, Printed and Lace Handkerchiefs: Interpreting A Popular 20th Century Collectible.  It’s available at bookstores and on her website.

Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers  Vintage Hankies - More Than Sneeze Catchers

Visit my web site to see hundreds of pretty hankies vintage fabrics and estate sale treasures.

Research Resources Seward, Linda, The Complete Book of Patchwork, Quilting and Appliqué, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1987 Lane, Rose Wilder, Woman’s Day book of American Needlework, Simon and Schuster, New York 1963 Kurella, Elizabeth, The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles, Krause Publications, Iola, Wisconsin, 1999.

She also has a wonderful detailed web site http://www.elizabethkurella.com Mihalick, Roseanna, Collecting Handkerchiefs. Schiffer Publishing Ltd. Atglen, Pennsylvania, 2000 Schwab. David E., The Story of Lace and Embroidery and Handkerchiefs. Fairchild Publications Inc., New York, 1957 Warner, Pamela, Embroidery A History. B.T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1991 The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.

To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.