Zero-Waste Wall Art

Zero-Waste Wall Art header

Over the last several months I’ve been pursuing two different aspects of personal development: revitalizing my creativity and reducing the amount of waste I generate. I’ve also been trying to combine these two pursuits, which led me to ponder ways I could create art without also creating waste.

I had recently made myself an Indiana wall-hanging with nails and plywood when my sister commented that her husband would probably like a similar piece of art in the shape of California for his upcoming birthday. (It’s already come and gone, so this post isn’t a spoiler.)

From a Facebook query asking for supplies, I discovered that one of my friends has a lapsed woodworking hobby. He was happy to give me a big scrap of plywood as well as the small wood pieces I attached to the back. (The backing pieces keep the plywood off the floor when you’re nailing and keep the nails from scratching the wall when you hang the finished piece.)

Reclaimed plywood with scraps attached for hanging

Reclaimed plywood with scraps attached for hanging

I printed the outline of California tiled on four sheets of paper so it would be big enough for the piece of wood. I made X’s on the outline where I wanted nails to go; I think it was about every inch. Having the nail placements marked was helpful so I didn’t have to eyeball it as I went. I taped down the outline and hammered a nail all the way through the plywood at each X.

In-progress shot with nails all the way around the outside of the shape

I nailed right through the paper—it was easy to tear off when I was done.

I then tore off the paper and was left with just the nails creating the outline. I spent some time experimenting with how I wanted to make the shape visible. Should I do zig-zags in the interior of the shape? Just a border around the outside?

Side-by-side comparison of zig-zags vs. outside border

I decided to do both techniques together. The zig-zags are embroidery thread, which I attached by simply knotting it to one of the nails. The outside border is some white binding tape I had in my craft drawer from years and years ago (when I mistakenly thought binding tape would have adhesive properties—protip: it does not). I wove the binding tape around the outside nails and then hand-sewed it at the corner so it would sit flat, rather than having a big knot.

Straight-on view of finished wall-hanging

The finished product

Materials used:

  • Reclaimed wood from a friend’s garage
  • Made in USA nails I already had (plus a few I borrowed)
  • Four sheets of paper
  • White embroidery thread I already had
  • White binding tape I already had
  • White thread I already had

Wall hanging on wall in living room with couch and lamp in background

One thing I like about this piece is that it can theoretically be disassembled and the components reused. I used no glue, so none of the elements are fused together inseparably.

I had been looking for a way to use a large quantity of the nails, which I bought without realizing they are “finishing nails,” which means they don’t have a head and are therefore difficult to pull out of the wall. Apparently Americans only make specialty nails, not basic ones for hanging pictures, so this was the most normal style I could get that was made in USA. (I’m not sure if it was more or less wasteful for me to buy 500 impractical American-made nails instead of 50 Chinese-made nails that were actually what I wanted.) I did have to borrow a few nails from a friend to attach the backing pieces because my nails were too long.

Side view of wall hanging showing backing piece

The side pieces on the back help stand the wall hanging off the wall so the nails don’t scratch it.

Technically I did waste a few pieces of Scotch tape, which I used to tape down the outline of the state, and I did have to recycle the paper after I tore it off. But overall I bought no new materials, found purpose for items that could have gone in the trash, and ended up with a minuscule amount of waste (not to mention a super-cool gift for my bro-in-law).

What DIY projects have you created lately? Are you working any zero-waste ideas into your lifestyle?

Conducting a Wardrobe Audit: Plan of Attack

Conducting a Wardrobe Audit Step Two: Plan of Attack
It’s been several weeks since my first post on conducting a wardrobe audit, so I thought I would share an update on how that project is going. There hasn’t been a ton of movement due to some trips I’ve taken recently and the changing seasons (I’m trying to remember how to put my summer clothes together into outfits), but I have taken one step toward creating my overall plan of attack.

What I’ve started doing is setting aside clothes that need something done to them. I realized how many items of clothing I have that I’m just “making work” instead of taking the time to alter them and make them actually fit. Mostly these are skirts and pants, and the problem on almost all of them is either the length or the fit at the waist. I have some skirts I permanently keep a safety pin on to make the waist the right size. If I go ahead and actually sew the waist, it will sit better and I’ll be able to tuck shirts into it, making it a more versatile piece.

Clothes hanging on drying rack

The clothes I have identified so far that would benefit from alteration (emphasis on “so far”): Four pairs of pants, four skirts and a shirt.

The length issue is mostly related to my collection of capri pants. A lot of them are much longer than is flattering on me, creating more of a cankle effect than the desired “check out my shapely gams” effect. I’ve shortened some capri pants before but they turned out kind of amateur looking, so I might try some different strategies I’ve found on Pinterest.

Also on Pinterest I’ve found a couple of tutorials for taking in the waist on jeans. Currently I have several pairs that require a belt and don’t look good when I tuck shirts in. I’m skeptical of some of the tutorials because they require sewing elastic into the waistband, and I don’t want my skinny jeans to become mom jeans. Right now I’m planning to try it on one of my lesser-worn pairs to see how it goes. I’ve also tried sewing in darts with a moderate level of success, so that’s my backup plan.

One primary obstacle keeping me from acting on any of these ideas is that I’m doing the 100 Day Project on Instagram, in which I create a piece of art everyday. My sewing table doubles as my art table, so there’s not really a way for me to bust out the sewing machine without tearing down my art area. However, my theme for the project is “100 days of not digital,” so sewing and altering would definitely fall in as acceptable projects. I actually picked a theme on purpose that would allow me to kill two birds with one stone—creativity and working on my clothes—but I’ve enjoyed the painting and drawing so much that I’m not ready to pack up those supplies yet. (Follow me @juliaspangler if you want to check out my progress!)

Are you making any changes to your wardrobe this spring? Do you also rely on safety pins instead of actually sewing things?

Local Chocolate Fave Becomes Fairtrade Certified

The Indianapolis fair trade revelations keep coming! Last summer I learned about Liz Alig, and a few weeks ago I learned that Indianapolis-based Endangered Species Chocolate (ESC) has just been certified by Fairtrade International, making it the first first American-made chocolate using fully traceable Fairtrade cocoa from West Africa.

I’m excited that an Indianapolis company is demonstrating major leadership in fair trade certification. ESC previously claimed on its packaging that it followed ethical sourcing practices, but I tend to be skeptical of ethical claims that aren’t backed by a fair trade certification. Now that they are certified with Fairtrade International, I feel much more confident purchasing their products (which I plan to do on the regular now, because omgsooooogood).

Three chocolate bars from Endangered Species Chocolate

To share the local love and get the inside story on their move to fair trade certification, I spoke to Whitney Bembenick, ESC’s research and development manager.

Fair for All: Why was becoming Fairtrade certified important to ESC?

Whitney Bembenick: It is Endangered Species Chocolate’s mission to have a positive impact on species, habitat and humanity through the work that it does to make premium, ethically traded, shade grown, all natural chocolate. We believe that we carry an important responsibility to help the fair trade community grow, and that joining forces with Fairtrade International will allow us to continue to expand our work.

How will the certification improve the lives of the cocoa producers you work with?

In addition to paying a fair price, which is set by the Fairtrade Standard and Pricing Unit, we pay an additional Fairtrade Premium of $200 per tonne of cocoa purchased from our farmers in West Africa.  The farmers are then responsible for democratically determining how this money will be spent to enrich the lives of their community.  A few examples of how this money may be used are: fresh water sourcing, community buildings, education for both children and farmers, and investment in improvement of their agricultural tools/systems.

ESC was already following its own ethical sourcing practices. Will the certification change how you do things?

The core of what we have been doing, and what we will continue to do, will not change.  We will continue to ethically source our cocoa from the same farmers we have partnered with in West Africa for years to come, making a positive impact on species, habitat and humanity. However, we now have Fairtrade certified sugar, vanilla and other ingredients that have Fairtrade standards in each of our chocolate bars. We are also looking forward to working with the people at Fairtrade International (America) to develop impact reports which will outline how the work we are doing is impacting farmer communities.

Dark chocolate with blackberry sage chocolate bar

Why did you choose the Fairtrade International certification over other fair trade certifications (Fair Trade USA, IMO Fair for Life, etc.)?

Fairtrade International is the longest standing, most globally recognized fair trade certification. Over 6 in 10 people recognize the logo, and of those people, 9 in 10 trust it. We have confidence in the rigor and transparency of a fair trade organization with that much recognition.

Are all of ESC’s products Fairtrade certified?

Yes! Look for the seal on all of our products as they become available on shelf.

Part of ESC’s mission is to promote conservation and protect animals. Can you briefly describe the projects you have going on right now in that arena?

In the past three years, we have been able to donate over $1 million to our 10% partners, African Wildlife Foundation and Xerces Society. In addition, we have partnered with several non-profits that are species-related to raise awareness for their cause on the inside of our wrappers. For instance, our Lavender Mint Crème Filled Chocolate Bar features the Monk Seal Foundation and its work to protect the Hawaiian Monk Seal. We also have “pop up” contests sporadically throughout the year on Facebook that both raise awareness and often times give money to various species-driven non-profits.

Where can people buy Endangered Species Chocolate?

The options are endless!  National and local natural grocers have a great selection of our chocolate bars. Many other conventional grocers carry us too, usually in their natural marketplace. Readers can go to for a product finder, or click on the bar they would like to purchase, and they will be taken to our Amazon marketplace to have yummy chocolate delivered right to their door.


Thanks to Whitney for sharing the story of ESC’s fair trade certification! Of probable interest to chocolate-lovers: ESC also just recently released several varieties of “cocoa spread,” i.e. basically fair trade Nutella. *insert that emoji with hearts for eyes*

Is fair trade gaining traction with companies in your city? Have any of your favorite brands gone fair trade?

Style Swap: My Favorite Ethical Dress

Today I’m excited to be doing a style swap with Leah from Stylewise! We each styled our favorite ethical dresses. Check out Leah’s blog to see my outfit.

Leah in blue Mata Traders dress and brown sweater

My favorite ethical dress is the Postcard Dress by Mata Traders. I purchased it during an end-of-season sale early last fall, which meant it sat in my closet for about 5 months before I could wear it as a proper sundress. Since it was a bit cold and I planned to be outside, I wore a cropped sweater over it today.

Close-up of brown sweater and beaded pendant necklace

I’ve owned a few dresses by Mata Traders and I find that the fit is hit and miss, particularly if you’re small busted like me. I ran this one through the washer and dryer against recommendations to shrink it up a bit and it worked perfectly! They also have a knit cotton line this season, so I think I’ll have better luck with fit in the future.

Leah smiling in blue dress and brown sweater

I love the textured, linen feel of the fabric and the fact that it pairs with almost any color. I also like the 1930s farm girl aesthetic and the square neckline. It’s a simple piece with some standout details. Plus, it was made under fair trade guidelines by a women’s co-op in India, so I can look and feel great wearing it.

Now that I’ve spent all this time scrutinizing it, I want to stock up on more easy-to-wear dresses like this one!

Ethical Details:
Dress: Mata Traders
Sweater: American Apparel
Necklace: Greenola Style

Don’t forget to hit up Leah’s blog to see my favorite ethical dress and read her other excellent posts!

My Verdict on Handkerchiefs

Last month I interviewed Marion Poirier of handkerchief company TSHU, asking her all my skeptical questions about how much a hanky can really handle. She kindly provided me two handkerchiefs to try out, and after a month of use my verdict is in.

I’m officially a handkerchief convert. For me the most fun part is the feeling that blowing my nose on something that feels like clothes is somewhat rebellious. The first time I tried it, I thought someone was going to come up behind me and demand to know why I was besmirching a perfectly good piece of fabric. This is ridiculous of course, since people have been using handkerchiefs for hundreds of years longer than we’ve been using paper tissues. But I still get a thrill!

From a practical standpoint, the hankies hold up. They’re softer and stronger than paper tissues, with one handkerchief easily doing the work of several tissues. Once the handkerchief dries out (which it does quickly), whatever gunk fragments are left seem very insignificant compared to my load of laundry as a whole. The handkerchief material is thick enough that it contains moisture well, especially when it’s folded up. After each use, I fold my handkerchief so any moisture is on the inside, and then I put it in a little satin case I previously used to carry tissues. (TSHU makes a carrying case as well.)

Two handkerchiefs folded in small satin case

My handkerchief carrying case, originally made to hold a travel pack of tissues.

I used the handkerchiefs almost exclusively for blowing my nose. I had a backlog of disposable napkins in my lunchbox, so I didn’t really need to use a hanky to wipe my fingers after eating. Also, because I used my hankies for nose-blowing, I wasn’t in a big hurry to use them for other things and cross-contaminate. If I was going to use a handkerchief as a napkin, I would definitely want a separate handkerchief from my nose handkerchief.

I prefer the one-ply handkerchief to the two-ply. For me the two-ply is a little thick for general nose-blowing usage. It still works, but it feels a little bulky. I can see how it could be useful for wiping up spills or wet hands, though, or to use if you have a serious cold. Initially I was just going to try out a two-ply handkerchief, so I’m glad Marion sent me the one-ply as well!

The one-ply polka-dotted Henri and two-ply Dwight handkerchiefs

The one-ply polka-dotted Henri and two-ply white Dwight handkerchiefs

The only downside of the experiment was that I didn’t have more hankies to rotate. Since I only had two, I used each one for several days longer than I probably should have. It wasn’t always easy to tell which parts of the hanky I had already used, which probably isn’t the greatest from a hygiene standpoint. I also kept forgetting to throw them in the laundry since I kept them in my purse. On the bright side, I discovered that they are very easy to hand wash and quick to dry.

TSHU just released a new organic hanky multi-pack (aptly named Hank) that could solve my problem of too few hankies. Having one for each day of the week would be ideal—I would use one for the day then throw it in the wash and get a fresh one for tomorrow, like a pair of socks.

Eight natural handkerchiefs with red corners

Note for my fellow Americans: TSHU’s prices are in Canadian dollars, so a three-pack of Hank hankies actually costs about $40, not $48. TSHU also offers free shipping on all orders worldwide.

I’m excited to continue using my handkerchiefs and eventually add to my collection!

Disclosure: TSHU gave me two handkerchiefs to try for free. All opinions are my own.

Let’s Start a Revolution

Fashion Revolution Day 24.04.15

Two years ago today, the Rana Plaza factory complex in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,133 workers and injuring over 2,500 more. Many of the victims worked making apparel for Western brands. This tragedy is commemorated with Fashion Revolution Day, a campaign to shine light on the people who make the clothes we wear, often in uncomfortable or downright dangerous conditions.

You can join the Fashion Revolution by asking your favorite brand “Who made my clothes?”

Take a photo of your clothing label and ask the brand on social media "Who made my clothes?"

I chose to call out athletic apparel brand Champion, since ethically-made activewear can be tough to find.

Members of the Ethical Writers Coalition are marking Fashion Revolution Day with posts on ethical fashion. Check out what my talented cohorts are saying:

I’m particularly excited about Alden’s petition for fashion retail websites to disclose the country of origin of their products. This small step toward transparency will help lead the way to more meaningful disclosures about supply chains and factories.

What brand are you calling out today?

Behind the Scenes of Fair Trade Fashion with Liz Alig

Liz Alig hang tag on a green shirt

In an old farmhouse at an orchard east of Indianapolis is a hidden fashion design studio you’d never know was there. It’s the headquarters of Liz Alig, and a couple of weeks ago founder Elizabeth Roney invited me to visit the studio.

I had never been behind the scenes of any kind of fashion business, let alone a fair trade fashion company, so I came with tons of questions and left with a head full of knowledge (along with a bunch of food I bought at the adjacent country store).

Here are the biggest things I learned:

1. A small team can have a big impact

The first thing I was impressed to learn was that Liz Alig is only a two-person operation. Elizabeth, as designer and operations manager, designs the collections and handles the logistics of communicating with the fair trade producers. Liz Alig is focused on wholesale distribution through boutiques around the country, so Elizabeth has a part-time sales and marketing associate help with that end of things.

It was encouraging to see a small team make such a big impact. Through the work of just two people, Liz Alig provides opportunity to fair trade producers in several developing countries and offers conscious consumers an ethical and fashion-forward clothing option.

2. Design is a small part of the process

Elizabeth told me that the design part of being a fashion designer actually only takes up a fraction of her time. Liz Alig releases two collections a year, fall and spring, and each collection takes about two weeks to design. It takes another two weeks to create the patterns the producers will use to make the orders.

After creating the patterns, Elizabeth will make a sample of each piece and send it to the producer group, or more often, she will send the group the pattern and have them make the sample themselves with a sketch to guide them. “That way they understand more how the piece is assembled,” Elizabeth says.

The rest of Elizabeth’s time is spent working with the producer groups to make and receive the orders, which I learned has its own set of unique challenges.

Pile of fabric, sewing machine, spools of thread

Supplies in the design studio: excess fabric, a pattern library, a rainbow of thread colors and Elizabeth’s sewing machine

3. Cultural miscommunication is a common occurrence

Liz Alig works with producer groups in Cambodia, India, Honduras, Haiti and more, and each group has different capabilities and resources. I asked about the language barrier, and Elizabeth said she frequently uses Google Translate to communicate with the different groups.

As well as speaking different languages, the producer groups also have different cultural ideas about what constitutes good fashion. Elizabeth said that many times she’s received a sample or shipment and been surprised by the colors used or the fit of the garments. One group used short zippers that didn’t work with how the garment was supposed to fit. Another group paired multiple bright colors together to make tops that were louder than what would be marketable in the boutiques where Liz Alig is stocked.

Quality can also vary depending on the producer group’s circumstances. The group Liz Alig works with in Haiti doesn’t have electricity, so they produce their garments using a foot-powered treadle sewing machine and by hand-sewing. “We want to give them more orders, but we need to get their quality up,” Elizabeth says.

I was heartened to hear this real story of the impact of fair trade relationships. A group without electricity would never be considered a viable option for fast fashion production, but by forming long-term relationships, fair trade offers this group in Haiti the opportunity to learn by doing, improve their skills and increase their capacity.

Close-up of screen printed design of illustrated people

Liz Alig recently introduced screen prints into their designs. Elizabeth’s designs are often inspired by motifs found in the producers’ culture, however this print, her favorite from the spring 2015 collection, was inspired by vintage fabric found at Goodwill.

4. Excess fabric is big business

Liz Alig makes several of their styles using factory excess fabric. I asked if factories are ever surprised when someone calls wanting their waste, and Elizabeth explained that the sale of excess fabric is actually a big industry. “People don’t realize how much waste there is in fabric production,” she said. Excess fabric can occur when the original purchaser orders too much, or if the color or design don’t match what the original purchaser wanted.

Liz Alig gets most of their factory excess fabric from El Salvador or Cambodia. The fabric is sold in warehouses or markets, sometimes in reams and sometimes just in wads. Elizabeth said that she tries to design garments using fabrics she knows will be abundant in the excess markets, such as gray jersey knit.

Rack of dresses, skirts and tops

Liz Alig produces small quantities of each garment, around 100-200 pieces, making each piece a truly unique investment. This is a sneak peek of their fall 2015 collection.

It was fascinating to learn the ins and outs of how a fair trade company actually conducts business, and to learn how clothing goes from a designer’s idea to a real garment hanging in your closet. Thanks to Elizabeth for letting me visit and for sharing her knowledge and the Liz Alig story!

Socially Responsible Investing: Proxy Voting

Socially Responsible Investing: Proxy Voting

Last week I received proxy voting materials in the mail for one of the funds my 401k is invested in. If you’re like me, when you get a big booklet filled with fine print about finance, you’re not too excited to read it. However, I knew that a proxy statement deserves attention, because proxy voting is one of the ways shareholders can have a direct impact on how their invested money is used.

What is a proxy statement, you ask? It’s a booklet containing various proposals for shareholders to vote on, and it comes with a card that allows you to cast your vote. There were three proposals on my proxy card (with my initial reactions):

  1. Elect a board of trustees for the fund (“Sure!”)
  2. Change the focus of the fund from financial investments to government investments (“Why not?”)
  3. Require the board to institute procedures to prevent holding investments in companies that substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity (“This is what I expect you do be doing anyway, so yes!”)

Obviously the last proposal caught my attention. It was submitted by a group of concerned shareholders, and it’s completely in the spirit of what socially responsible investing is about. In several places in the proxy statement and on the card itself, the company listed the existing board’s recommendations for how shareholders should vote. I found it discouraging (but not surprising) is that the board recommended voting against the “don’t fund genocide” proposal.

Proxy statement booklet and voting card

The proxy statement booklet and voting card, featuring the prominent recommendation to vote AGAINST the “don’t fund genocide” proposal.

The proxy statement contained the board’s justification for its recommendations. I approached it with an open mind, hoping they at least had a good reason for opposing the proposal, but their justification was weak. They basically said that the proposal would limit what the fund can invest in (duh), that they already comply with investment sanctions that the U.S. government places on other countries, and that shareholders can take their money elsewhere if they have a problem with how the fund is managed.

I took issue with their justification because:

  1. Taking a few companies off the huge list of potential investments is not going to hinder the fund’s performance.
  2. Sanctions are incredibly political. The U.S. government could avoid putting sanctions on a problematic government for a myriad of reasons. Whether it’s illegal to invest in a company controlled by a certain government shouldn’t be your only criteria for determining if that’s what your shareholders would want you to do.
  3. I don’t actually have the option of easily putting this money elsewhere. This fund is a holding fund where my money goes to sit until I use it to buy the socially responsible funds I like. I made no active choice to use this fund and could only avoid it by sending my money straight to conventional funds (no thanks) or by not using my company’s 401k.

They didn’t even talk about whether adding new verification procedures would be inefficient or unreliable, which in my opinion would have been way more legitimate concerns than the arguments they did use. Their whole justification was only three short paragraphs. Hey, if you’re not going to go to the effort of writing a convincing rebuttal, I’m going to vote for the thing that sounds humane. I put an emphatic X voting for the procedures to avoid investing in genocide.

If you’ve received a proxy statement and are putting off looking at it, here are a couple of factoids from my experience to encourage you (your situation may vary based on what funds you’re voting on and how many proposals they have):

  • The proxy statement booklet I got was written in very easy-to-understand language. It looked daunting, but it wasn’t hard to read.
  • It only took me about 30-45 minutes to read and fully understand all of the proposals. If I had just focused on the one I really cared about, it would have taken 10 minutes tops. (I read all of them to make sure they weren’t sneaking anything in, so if you’re suspicious like me, set aside a little time.)

There’s a reason companies are required to have shareholders vote on certain things. It’s so you get a voice in how your money is managed! Using your voice is key to holding companies accountable and showing them you care more about just the bottom line.

The unfortunate truth is that the majority of shareholders will not take the time to read the proxy statement and will blindly vote in line with the recommendations printed on the card. But even if the “don’t fund genocide” proposal doesn’t pass, I at least want to show my financial company that someone is paying attention. One lesson learned from the financial crisis is that financial firms don’t do any due diligence they aren’t legally required to do. Shareholders can help hold companies accountable on areas that regulations don’t cover, and proxy voting is one way to do that.

Learn more about the anti-genocide shareholder campaign at Investors Against Genocide.

Happy Fair Trade Birthday to Me!

In my family, we play it fast and loose when it comes to when birthdays are celebrated. “Within a six week period of the actual date?” we collectively ask. “Close enough!” So I don’t feel behind at all posting a recap of my fair trade birthday gifts only a month after I received them (at the celebration that was two weeks after my actual birthday).

I was my mother’s daughter this year and bought pretty much all of my presents for myself, wrapped them all, then sneakily accepted cash before we all ooohed and aaahed over my selections.

Dress: Liz Alig, made fairly in India

Julia wearing Regina Dress from Liz Alig

This dress is THE BEST. Pockets, cute color, work-appropriate length, wide straps (it’s sleeveless), and twirly! It’s on wicked sale and Liz Alig makes small quantities so you should probably buy one before they’re all gone. (This is not even a paid endorsement, I just love it this much.)

Scarf: Handmade Expressions via Global Gifts, made fairly in India

Necklace: Global Gifts, made fairly in India

Teal-to-white ombre scarf and coral beaded necklace

I’m wearing this scarf right now while I blog!

Basket: SERRV via Global Gifts, made fairly in Ghana

Basket with leather handles holding blankets

I had previously been keeping my throw blankets in a plastic tub. Major upgrade. I love the leather handle!

I’ve never had a basket as part of my decor before, but now that I have one, I can see myself becoming a basket lady. They look so much cooler than bins, and there’s no shortage of fair trade basket options, so I could collect them guilt-free! Bwahaha! (I can see the look of horror on my interior decorator sister’s face. Don’t worry, Paige, I don’t need any more storage… for now…)

Have you treated yourself to any new fair trade items lately? Does your family also celebrate birthdays willy-nilly? How many baskets is too many?

Handkerchiefs: An Eco Throwback

Handkerchiefs: An Eco Throwback over photo of two hankies

Handkerchiefs have never really been a thing during my lifetime. My experience with them is pretty much limited to what I’ve seen in historical dramas and Looney Tunes, and my vague understanding of hankies is that they’re non-disposable Kleenex, which seems kind of icky.

However, as people (including me) look to reduce their use of disposable paper products, handkerchiefs are making a comeback. I’m completely in favor of hankies in terms of reducing waste, but given my recent perception of handkerchiefs as basically snot rags, I was skeptical of their practicality and hygiene.

I reached out to Marion Poirier, co-founder and CEO of Montreal-based handkerchief company TSHU, with my questions about how well handkerchiefs can really work on an everyday basis.

Fair for All: What are some of the ways to use a handkerchief?

Marion Poirier: There are many different ways to use a handkerchief and funnily enough, lots of them don’t include blowing or wiping one’s nose!

A handkerchief is a very useful accessory to carry on one at all times and can come in handy in various situations. For instance, there is nothing like a soft, absorbent cotton handkerchief to wipe the sweat off one’s brow after an energetic workout, a bike ride or simply to deal with the heat or excessive sweating due to anxiety.

It’s also a great fix for oily hands after digging into finger food or wiping your child’s cheeks after a snack. Bearded and mustachioed men also find our hankies quite useful after enjoying a beverage! Crying or emotion can also be dealt with in style. Wiping your screen or your glasses with a handkerchief is also appropriate. Some of our clients even groom their pets with the handkerchiefs. And, for practical reasons, there is nothing like a cotton handkerchief to really blow your nose when practicing outdoor winter sports – without ending up with little debris of wet paper-tissues in your pockets.

Teal, yellow and gray geometric patterned handkerchief

Are handkerchiefs a practical solution for people with serious nasal congestion, or are they only for those with a dainty nose drip?

Cotton handkerchiefs are definitely appropriate for real use! They are truly fantastic for people who suffer from seasonal allergies or severe colds as their noses are frequently irritated and their skin more sensitive due to excessive blowing. After all, hankies are way softer and more absorbent then regular paper tissues!

However one chooses to use their handkerchief is absolutely personal though. The idea is to try it and see what works for you! If germs are a concern for you, the same rules as using paper tissues apply: wash your hands often! And, for extra precaution, leave your handkerchief in our practical case (Casey) for hygiene and transport, wash both the handkerchief and case often and/or have a few hankies in stock as backup.

Personally, I can go through 5 or 6 two-ply hankies in a day when sick, or one every day or second day when healthy. I’ve seen people wash their hankies once a week though (or even less!) – so everything is a question of comfort and use!

How do you wash a handkerchief? If you use it to blow your nose, does it make your other laundry gross?

Caring for your handkerchief is extremely simple. Simply toss it in the machine with your laundry – cold water preferably, and lay flat or hang to dry. Bonus points for drying in the sun, as the sun naturally fades stains!

As per “contamination” with the rest of your laundry – again it’s a question of comfort. Most parents will agree that their loads have seen worse things than handkerchiefs…

Several handkerchiefs hanging on an outdoor clothesline

How do you handle carrying around a dirty or wet handkerchief all day if you happen to use it early in the day?

How many times you use one handkerchief is really up to you! There are several tricks to get the most out of your hanky. For instance, you can fold it where it’s been used and move on to another section, piece by piece. The surprising thing about cotton handkerchiefs is that it “magically” dries in your pocket. So, the folded part of the hanky you were using this morning may be dry by late afternoon, the water having evaporated! If it’s beyond re-using, you can also use our little case to store your dirty handkerchief. It’s always good to have a backup handkerchief, too. There’s an old saying that I like to quote: “Always carry two handkerchiefs: one for show and one for blow.”

What are the differences between a handkerchief, a pocket square and a cloth napkin?

A handkerchief is usually made out of cotton and is particularly useful when soft and absorbent. A pocket square is often made from more delicate materials such as silk and wool and boast a hand rolled edge, which makes them more decorative than practical. Cloth napkins are usually way larger in size than handkerchiefs or pocket squares and are sometimes made with linen, which is not as soft on the nose.

Assortment of colorful handkerchiefs

Do you carry multiple handkerchiefs, or is one usually enough?

Most people carry one or two (one for show, one for blow). I personally like to have at least one on me and I leave some everywhere for emergencies (the car, the office, my laptop case, in the pocket of the jacket I use to run, etc.).

Since starting to use handkerchiefs, how has your life improved?

In many ways! With three kids in the house, we waste considerably less. We’ve also converted to cloth napkins so we basically don’t use paper tissues or towels at all anymore.

Aside from the environmental impact, I’ve absolutely converted to the habit and don’t find the use of paper tissues to be agreeable any more. In comparison, they are way too thin & fragile and not as soft as our cotton handkerchiefs!

I’ve also found that having a TSHU on you is incredibly practical for every day life and use my handkerchiefs to deal with the unexpected frequently. I’m always proud to pull out a beautiful, colourful hanky to save a situation or politely refuse paper napkins at a deli when ordering a sandwich!


Marion sent me two TSHU hankies to try out: the one-ply polka-dotted Henri and the two-ply organic Dwight. TSHU handkerchiefs are handmade in Montreal, and the company plants a tree for each handkerchief adopted (TSHU calls each purchase an adoption—cute!).

Two TSHU handkerchiefs in cardboard sleeve packaging

As a cloth napkin user, I like the idea of a pseudo-napkin I can take with me anywhere. And with the weather (hopefully) warming up soon, it will be nice to have something to wipe the sweat off my face with after a run or a particularly energetic swing dance. I plan to use the hankies for at least 30 days, then I’ll report back about the practical ins and outs.

Have you ever used a cloth handkerchief? What was your experience?

Disclaimer: TSHU provided me two free handkerchiefs to review in a future post.