What is a handkerchief?

Take it away, Collins English Dictionary:

handkerchief is a small square piece of fabric which you use for blowing your nose.

Okay, well that wasn’t particularly helpful, was it? Here’s how I’d define a handkerchief:

The handkerchief is (typically) a square piece of hemmed cloth that is primarily used for personal hygiene, as a clothing accessory, or carried as a handy multi-functional “tool” that can help solve everyday challenges. It has a long history but tremendous staying power and, if anything, its value proposition today may be more important than ever.

In this resource I will provide links to everything you could wish to know about the handkerchief:

  • The history
  • The benefits
  • Common uses
  • Types of handkerchiefs
  • Where to shop

Other Names for Handkerchiefs

I’m a big fan of the “hanky” or “hankie” but here are some other alternative names:

  • Kerchief
  • Bandana
  • Snot rag (ewww)
  • Reusable tissue
  • Rag
  • Pocket square

The Benefits of Handkerchiefs

In the modern context, there are reasons why I think the handkerchief is more important than ever.


Handkerchiefs get a bad rap when it comes to personal hygiene. People think of blowing a nose into one, stuffing it into a bag or pocket and then germs are everywhere.

Yes, using a hanky in this way is definitely not hygienic but neither is having crumpled tissue papers everywhere. Ultimately, it comes down to how you use them. You can go into greater detail with the link below.

Is the Handkerchief More Hygienic Than Tissues?

Tissue vs handkerchief

Of course, the HankyBook was created to make hanky’s more hygienic by default, thanks to its book-shaped form that stops germs and ick from spreading.

HankyBook product


If environmentalism and zero waste mean anything to you then you’ll probably be aware of the problem with single-use tissues. The amount of energy and resources that go into an item that, when used properly, ends up in the trash moments later is just staggering.

The major benefit of handkerchiefs is that they are more environmentally friendly. They can be used for years – in fact, they tend to get softer with age, so they’ll be even kinder to your skin as time goes on.

And to clean then, just a quick toss in with your next wash and they’re ready to go again. If you get a hanky with 100% organic cotton, like the HankyBook, even better!

Multiple Uses

A handkerchief is just very handy to have in your back pocket or bag. View below for the Common Uses section as I discuss the plethora of use cases for handkerchiefs.

Style & Sentiment

Because a handkerchief can be part of your life for many years, or decades, it can become a part of your life. Whether it becomes your child’s comfort blanket, or was there to wipe away a loved one’s tears, or upgrade your style on a big date.

This is why vintage handkerchiefs are so popular. They have a history. They have a story.

Disposable facial tissues are purely functional.

Common Uses of Handkerchiefs

The primary purpose of the handkerchief is wiping one’s nose, blowing into it, catching sneezes – basically, it’s there to help your nose. I’d also put covering your mouth when coughing into the same personal hygiene category.

There is a distinct secondary use as a purely decorative accessory, such as a pocket square adding a bit of style to a suit pocket, or as part of a folk-dance in the Balkans and Middle East.

Finally, there is another bucket of uses that I’d just call: life. The hanky has a wide range of practical purposes from wiping away sweat, spills or makeup, to cover your face from dust. Stemming blood flow, creating an icepack, protecting your brow from the sun, filtering dirty liquid – honestly, there are so many uses of the handkerchief I’d be here all day listing them out.

Lucky I already have some guides that dig deeper:

17 Handkerchief Uses

17 Handkerchief Uses – Infographic

23 Uses for a HankyBook

Where to Buy Handkerchiefs

If you are on the search for the perfect handkerchief, I’ve been down the rabbit hole a few times. That’s why I wrote about the best handkerchief offerings for men and women.

The Top 5 Men’s Handkerchiefs

The 6 Best Handkerchiefs for Ladies

Ladies handkerchiefs

Of course, I encourage you to do your own research. Etsy is a great resource and of course, you can’t beat local thrift and vintage shops.

You can also shop HankyBooks in our online store

Popular Handkerchief Fabrics

If you’re planning to use your hanky for personal hygiene, softness is going to be a big consideration as well as durability and absorbency. I recommend soft organic cotton that meets those three requirements. Always give it a wash first, which will help release the stiffness – and over time it will get even softer.

These days handkerchiefs are made from the following fabrics.

  • Cotton
  • Silk
  • Linen
  • Cotton blend
  • Synthetic

The History of the Handkerchief

From 1000 BC China to the Middle East and Victorian times – the handkerchief has a storied history as any piece of clothing or garment.

I covered a great deal of this handkerchief history in the guide below, including why I think it will still be around for centuries to come.

The Complete Handkerchief History

How to Fold a Pocket Square and Handkerchief

Whether it’s to keep germs trapped, or style for a pocket, handkerchief folding is something I get asked about a lot. HankyBook started with an intricate hanky folding method, so the art of folding is close to our hearts.

To help you familiarize yourself with different handkerchief folding techniques, I created the following guides:

How to Fold a Handkerchief for a Suit Pocket

How to Fold a Handkerchief – Secret Sanitary Method (with video)

How to fold a handkerchief video

How to Fold a Handkerchief for Your Back Pocket

Final Thoughts

It feels funny to talk about joining the handkerchief movement, given the centuries-long history of the handkerchief, but – screw it – that’s what I’m going to do!

I truly believe they are better than facial tissues in almost every way. Everyone should carry a handkerchief, because they’re kinder on the nose, on the planet, and are very handy when life throws spills your way.

Once you’re an owner and a convert, consider introducing them to family and friends. The right handkerchief will make a great gift.