A gentleman’s handkerchief (or, the most pitiful HSF item I will make all year)

I have finally finishes an item for the HSF Gentlemen challenge (well, actually I finished it on Wed the 3rd), but I have very ambivalent feelings about counting it.

This is my hand sewn, 16th century blackwork embroidered linen handkerchief:

Embroidered handkerchief thedreamstress.com

Only it isn’t.

Why not?  And why am I so hesitant to include it?

Because it is completely and utterly historically inaccurate.

Yes, it’s linen.  And it’s handsewn. And the embroidery uses period stitches, and a motif taken from a period source.  And the lace isn’t too bad as a modern approximation of a late Renaissance lace.

Embroidered handkerchief thedreamstress.com

The handkerchief is, in fact, the perfect example of how you can use period materials, and period techniques, and period inspiration, but end up with something that is just a terrible, un-historical pastiche.

The problem is that I depended on memory rather than checking my sources.  I knew that there were numerous 16th century portraits that show women holding handkerchiefs, some plain, some with blackwork, some with lace (this seems to be most common in Spanish portraits).  I thought I had also seen portraits depicting men holding handkerchiefs.

I thought a handkerchief would be a nice unisex item, and to further masculine-ise mine I picked a traditionally masculine motif: oak leaves (OK, so the really masculine part is the acorn, but I preferred to keep the reference subtle rather than blatant).  Oak leaves are also a nice play on my name,  and every Renaissance artist loves a good name pun.

I found myself with a couple of hours, some spare linen, a print out of some 17th century  blackwork motifs and no access to other sources (it’s a long story).  So I cut out a linen square,  modified a motif to fit my vision, embroidered away, hemmed it, and came home and added the lace, and THEN looked at my sources.

This is when I realised that:

1) A closer inspection of the  portraits I thought were of men holding handkerchiefs reveals that the men are actually holding gloves.  I cannot find a single 16th century depiction of a man holding a handkerchief.

2) Because I was remembering portraits of men holding gloves, my handkerchief is really small (9″ square plus lace): the size of a glove in a man’s  hand, not the size of a 16th century handkerchief based on their size in portraits of women (more like 16″ -18″ square).

3) There don’t seem to be any depictions of handkerchiefs with single blackwork motifs in one corner, instead of full blackwork borders.

Embroidered handkerchief thedreamstress.com

So, I have a item that  may not have been used by a man at all (though logically, they probably did use handkerchiefs), is ridiculously too small for the period, and has a completely un-period application of the motif.

Handsewn?  Yes.  Linen?  Yes?  Blackwork?  Yes.  Period?  No.

The Challenge: #22 Fort-nightliers Choice (Gentlemen)

Fabric:  a 25cm square of linen

Pattern:  I used the really basic introduction to blackwork here, and adapted the oak leaf motif in the top right corner of the second page of motifs from adapted from Shorleykers 1624 A Schole-House for the Needle (the pages are clearly scans from a book.  Anyone know which one?).  Only I adapted it more.

Year:  Was meant to be from sometime  between 1560-1630

Notions:  linen thread, cotton embroidery thread, cotton lace.

How historically accurate is it?:  Let’s face it.  Not, because it wouldn’t make sense in period, despite using period fabric and techniques.

Hours to complete:  2 or 3

First worn:  Not yet.  Not sure what I’m going to do with it.  Maybe actually use it as a handkerchief!

Total cost:  Essentially free, because all the bits were left over from other projects.  At least it was cheap!


  1. The story of how you made it, and why it’s not really “historical” though is a great story; very educational. And it’s a beautiful piece of work. You could certainly use it.

    A lot of the Viking era clothing recreations I see on line, by the way, suffer from a similar problem. They are often hand sewn from the appropriate natural fibers, but they combine period ornamentation techniques in a way that ends up being lovely but non-historical.

  2. Of course men in the 16th c. used handkerchiefs, for all the same reasons women would. I have a few pix of men carrying them in their pouches, incld. Sir Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester (QEI’s favorite) at http://trystancraft.com/costume/2013/12/31/mens-16th-century-purse-gallery/

    But you are right about that style being not as super accurate. A blackwork border all around the edge was more common or with just lace (you can see a bit of lace edging on the ones in men’s bags on my site) or plain.

    You were still on the right track, IMO 🙂

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