As part of the Ffern Artists series, we have worked with the natural-dye artist Daisy Gray to create a limited run of hand-dyed and handwoven ethical silk handkerchiefs.
NB: Due to the limited number, the handkerchiefs are only available to ledger members. We apologise to any non-ledger members who might wish to purchase one.
The handkerchiefs are handwoven from ethical ‘eri’ silk (silk that is spun once the moths have left the cocoon) by a co-operative of artisans in West Bengal, India and hand-dyed by Daisy using goldenrod (pale gold), walnut leaves (chartreuse) and madder root (terracotta). Daisy has chosen these colours as a reflection of an English greenhouse - the inspiration behind Spring 21.
Being handwoven and hand-dyed, there will be small slubs and variations in colour, adding to the uniqueness of each piece. ‘Eri’ silk is slightly weightier than traditional silk and more linen-like in feel, with a soft lustre. Measures approximately 30x30cm.
We explore the history of the scented handkerchief, tracing it from the Romans through to Queen Elizabeth and the Victorians…
The Roman love poet Catullus was the first to write about handkerchiefs. His poem (written in the first century CE) accuses a friend of stealing his handkerchiefs, sent as a keepsake from dear friends in Spain. Catullus makes it clear that handkerchiefs were valued personal items with varied uses, which could be invested with intense emotional meaning.
As linen became more affordable for ordinary Romans, handkerchiefs became increasingly popular and were used both for ordinary tasks like cleaning, and as status symbols. The Emperor Aurelian even gifted silk and linen handkerchiefs at the theatre to be waved as a sign of approval. There is also evidence of handkerchiefs in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, usually made from linen but very occasionally from lustrous Chinese silks.
The heyday of the handkerchief came in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Elaborately embroidered and scented handkerchiefs became fashionable at the Italian, French and Spanish courts from around the thirteenth century. These were made in fine silks, lawn, linens and cambric, sometimes shot through with gold threads. From the sixteenth century they were edged with valuable lace, weighted with tassels, and embroidered with lovers’ knots, often to be exchanged as love tokens. Scented handkerchiefs were carried in the hand, in specially made sweet bags, or simply tucked into the belt as decoration – very much on display.
During the fifteenth century, Spain’s sought-after perfumes were famed for their longevity – like Catullus, Medieval Europeans prized Spanish handkerchiefs, but now it was for their fine scent. In England, scented handkerchiefs were popularised by Elizabeth I, who had a great fondness for these fragrant squares (particularly the embroidered kind) and was often gifted them by her admiring courtiers. Desdemona’s embroidered handkerchief in Othello is perhaps the most famous stage prop of all time, but Elizabethan drama features many other handkerchiefs, for example Celia’s in Ben Johnson’s Volpone or Orlando’s in As You Like It, demonstrating their symbolic potential.
Perfumed accessories, or ‘trifles’, came in all shapes and sizes in late Medieval and Renaissance Europe, from beads filled with ambergris to scented leather gloves. Civet, musk, ambergris, damask (made from roses) and lavender water were among the most popular fragrances, usually found in paste form or pastilles. While most of these fragrances were available only to the wealthy, practically every household used dried herbs and scented waters in home remedies and to perfume clothes and rooms.
At Louis XIV’s glittering court in the seventeenth century, handkerchiefs became so large that the king decreed that nobody’s handkerchief could be larger than his own, while in Persia they were so symbolic of nobility that they were reserved for kings alone. But from the late seventeenth century, the handkerchief began to migrate to the pocket, no longer such a visible and extravagant accessory. That said, one of the handkerchief’s enduring uses today remains decorative, in the form of colourful pocket squares to accent dark suits.
With the rise of puritanism in Europe, a spotless handkerchief became a symbol of purity, cleanliness, and even godliness – this is perhaps the dominant impression of handkerchiefs moving forward into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite this pure image, a language of flirtation through handkerchiefs remained fashionable well into the Victorian Age. Drawing a handkerchief across a cheek meant ‘I love you’; holding it to the eyes translated to ‘you are so cruel’; while dropping it indicated that the lady wished to be friends. Handkerchiefs may feel like a thing of the past – but as history has shown, they have always found a way back into our pockets.
Words by Catriona Bolt