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DIY handmade hankies & napkins

Sometimes, it's the simplest makes that are the sweetest. Whether it be a thoughtful housewarming gift with a personalised embroidery, or a comforting and re-useable replacement for all those winter tissues, handmade napkins and hankies whip up pretty quick, have infinite variation potential, and are always well received. Excellent for stash busting and selfless sewing too - so that's two points checked on my re-sew-lutions list!

What you need:

  • Fabric. Natural fibres and lightweight preferably. I've used a red floral cotton lawn, a pale and speckly Nani Iro double gauze, and a plum silk something. Remember, you're going to be smearing it all over your - or someone else's - face, so it needs to feel good! Dimensions-wise, a traditional men's handkerchief is 12"x12", while a woman's is 8"x8" (does anybody know why this is? Do men produce more snot and therefore need a larger hanky with which to mop it up??). A standard napkin is 24"x24" - but really, you can make any size you wish
  • A measuring tape/ruler
  • An iron
  • Pins, thread, and your usual sewing supplies

Step 1

Cut your fabric to your desired measurements, plus 1 1/4" seam allowance added to each edge. I've gone for handkerchiefs that are 12"x12", so I've cut my fabric 14 1/2" square.

Step 2

Follow our Perfect Mitred Corners tutorial to fold and press in each edge and create those perfectly finished points.

Step 3

Give your napkin/hanky a good press and pin down the folded hems ready for stitching.

The technique you apply to hemming your hankies will have a dramatic effect, and depending on the type of fabric you've used, you might want to use an appropriate stitch...

Machine stitched 

This is the most straightforward option, and best suited to a stable cotton with a pretty print. The straight machine stitches will make for a durable hem, without detracting the eye from the fabric itself. From the wrong side, choose a wide-ish straight stitch and sew close to the fold, pivoting when you get to the mitred corners.

Hand stitched 

If you're using a beautifully drapey or delicate fabric like silk, it will be screaming out for an equally delicate hand finish! Machine stitches will look out of place, and can even distort or flute the seam. Use a super sharp hand sewing needle and a blind slip stitch, keeping your stitches as even as possible as they will show through ever so slightly (especially if you've chosen a solid colour, like I have...). 

I actually really love the way those teeny tiny hand stitches look - you instantly know that more love and time has gone into the making of it, and it reminds me of delicate vintage hemstitched handkerchiefs. Take it to the next level and check out this article from Seamwork for some really stunning vintage-inspired hemstitch techniques.

Decorative machine stitch 

This is a great way to add something extra to a more subtle fabric, especially if you're not going to embroider it later. I love the way the stitches create a symmetrical border to contrast the romantic print of the double gauze I used for this hanky. Decorative stitches should be sewn from the right side of your fabric, and make sure that you play around with stitch options and thread colours on a scrap first. 

Comments on this post (5)

  • Dec 03, 2019


    For the decorative stitch, what settings did you use on your machine? I keep running into issue with the top thread’s tension being too tight and then too loose; can;t seem to find a setting which works with that type of stitch, though I would love to use the pattern!

    Thank you for any help you can provide!

    — Julie

  • May 14, 2018

    Lovely article! I’m planning on attempting dinner napkins with double gauze, and don’t have the hand stitching skills for anything like this, but I may try some fancy machine stitching on scraps! Thank you for the inspiration!

    — Eleanor Barrett

  • Oct 20, 2016

    Keep in mind this is what I suppose the difference between the sexes and their handkerchief size to be. It’s not definitive. The kerchief, cloth worn about the head the same way as a square scarf today, is where the handkerchief (kerchief for the hand) comes from. To fit around the head, they started out quite large. The size decreased a bit in order to fit in the pocket without being bulky. Now for the most part, men used the handkerchief for nose blowing, so the size remained large enough to accommodate a clean area for each time the nose was blown. But it wasn’t lady-like for women to “full-on” blow their nose in public, so theirs was more for dabbing perspiration or using as a nosegay, perfumed cloth raised to the nose in order to block offensive odors. It didn’t need to be so large and was even to advantage to be smaller in order to be less cumbersome when held in one hand. The handkerchief stayed small when it began to be used socially, for young men to “find” or keep in the same way as giving ladies glove was a sign of affection in the 19th century. Even men’s handkerchiefs shrank when their primary use was as an accessory folded and displayed in the breast pocket (pocket squares). So our current standard sizes for the genders are based on that difference in purpose.

    — Aaron

  • Jan 19, 2015

    Hi Louise, the floral cotton was the last few metres on a bolt from a fabric wholesaler up in North London… What I would give to have more of it!! Sorry I can’t be of more help! Maybe try searching for things like Russian floral fabric to find something similar…

    — Elisalex - By Hand London

  • Jan 19, 2015

    Where is the red floral cotton lawn from? It’s gorgeous!

    — Louise

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