The Lost Handkerchief

The Lost Handkerchief

Some months ago, a customer came to me with a very special request – to recreate a handkerchief given to his wife by her grandmother for their wedding. The hankie was lost overseas on their honeymoon, and it only appeared in two wedding pictures. Using them as a guide, could I replicate her grandmother’s work, and complete it in time for their anniversary?

Ladies handkerchief with drawnwork and rose design, a pair of earrings laying on top
The Lost Handkerchief


Grandmother was a skilled needleworker, and she did a lovely job on this wedding hankie. However, a few things would make it much harder for me to replicate her work. One, although the two photos were large, the hankie design was not the focus in them – and while the rose was somewhat in focus, the drawnwork was not. Two, I did not have her cross stitch charts, and would have to reconstruct them from the finished piece. Three, the material she used appears to be a sort of cotton shirting, with a very different thread count than our linen. Four, I could only guess at the size of the hankie.

The last problem was the easiest to solve. The handkerchief couldn’t be more than about ten inches square, both by the earrings and by inference from the threads of the material. Although I’ve seen that material in several antique examples, I haven’t seen it produced anywhere, so I got the okay to use our linen for the reproduction. Unfortunately, a change in material means a change in thread count; so everything would have to be adapted to come out correctly.   

Creating a hand-rolled hem on white linen using the help of a sewing bird
Hemstitching with the help of a sewing bird

The first order of business was to hem up a hankie in the correct size. Grandmother hemmed her hankie by hand, although she did it in a slightly different way than I tend to – she rounded the corners instead of making them sharp. Trimming the excess bulk and making smooth, round curves was difficult but not overly so. Hand rolling hems involves picking up a single thread from the front of the hankie and three or four from the hem with each stitch, making it nearly invisible from the front. It’s close and eye-straining work, but a little sewing bird like this helps hold everything nice and taught at a comfortable working height. I love this bird for hand-rolled hems and bordering hankies; you just push down on her little tail and the mouth opens so that you can reposition your work.

Pulling individual threads out of the fabric to create the drawnwork motifs 
Drawing threads from linen is a bit nerve-wracking. Jenga, anyone?

The second order of business was to remove the threads for the openwork sections. A slip with the scissors here would mean hemming up a new hankie, so it’s a bit tense. I teased out a single thread in each section in order to give myself a line to work on, and then removed the others. As you can see, in most of the area only one set of threads is removed, leaving parallel threads. Where the sections cross, completely open squares leave small sections that need to be secured.

Beginning to hemstitch over the remaining threads using soft blue sewing thread on fine white linen
Hemstitching over the remaining threads

Once the threads are gone, the cut ends are secured by tiny satin stitches and the remaining parallel threads are gathered into bundles with hemstitch. For this linen, I used bundles of four to stay about the same apparent size as the original, and bound them with a soft blue sewing thread as she had. Was the original hankie made to be the bride’s ‘something blue’? I can’t be sure, but it does seem so.

Progress on the drawn thread work; open sections satin stitch and bundles of threads created with hemstitching 
Finished dainty bundles and open squares

There are many ways to gather and ornament threads in drawnwork, and I’ve done a few of them before. These are done simply in single bundles, and I think the parallel lines of them give a very dainty look to the design. The center was done using hemstitch as well, and although it is more blurry in the original photo, it looks not drawn but pulled – meaning that no threads were cut and the smaller holes were created by using tension to pull the fabric threads this way and that, using a white sewing thread in the middle and the same soft blue for the hemstitching along the edge.

Pages of charts depicting rose design; the top one is neat and accurate, the ones underneath less so
Creating an accurate chart was the most time-consuming part

Once the drawnwork and pulled threadwork was complete, it was time to move onto the cross stitch rose above it. Charting the rose turned out to be the most challenging part – every time I did it stitch for stitch, the resulting pattern ended up looking compressed along one axis. Her stitches were wider than they were tall, and if I couldn’t account for that, then I’d have to remake her rose using perfectly even stitches in a different manner. Finally I traced out the blocks of color with the rose reduced to size and put a piece of waste canvas over my tracing, dotting a pen mark through each tiny square. You can see it at the bottom left. Using that guide, I was able to construct a pattern that kept the colors where they belonged in an outline that matched – giving me a much more accurate guide for my materials than just copying the stitches would. You can see one of the early attempts at right, looking rather squashed.

Cross stitch rose design finished, hand with tweezers removing waste canvas from underneath stitching
More drawing of threads - this time waste canvas

Once the pattern was created, it was quick work to find the center and align it over the drawnwork. Picking colors was no harder than usual (matching to a computer screen is always tough) but with a set of nine colors that looked accurate and harmonized, I was ready to stitch. I don’t typically cross stitch, but soon found a good rhythm and method and the work was more pleasant than I expected. I’ll probably never do a large cross stitch piece, but it was a good change of pace.

Once the stitching was done, it was time to break out the tweezers again. Waste canvas is held together with some sort of magic starch that keeps it stiff while you’re working, but a spray of water dissolves it and turns the stiff sheet into a flexible bunch of loosely woven threads. Then it’s an easy matter to pull them from underneath the design one at a time, as long as you haven’t caught any with your needle. The process is similar to how I removed the linen threads for the drawnwork, but because they sit off the fabric, less nerve-wracking. One final ironing and this replica was ready to be sent off.

 Completed replica handkerchief; cross stitched rose and forget-me-not over open and lacy drawnwork motifs in one corner
The finished hankie


My customer was over the moon to receive this hankie and told me it was spot-on. As I walked through the process with him he was amazed at the dedication and work put into the original by his wife’s grandmother. For my part, it was a unique challenge and an honor to be able to recreate her beautiful work.

Handkerchief folded into quarters showing drawn threadwork in soft blue and rose in pink and green with metallic accents cross stitched above
Ready to be gifted
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