How to Make a Quilt with Old or Vintage Handkerchiefs

Updated July 20, 2017

Quilters like to immortalise keepsakes as well as repurpose vintage items they possess or enjoy searching for. Old handkerchiefs are no exception. Hunt through consignment shops, flea markets and garage sales for handkerchiefs of every colour. Since handkerchiefs are not widely used today, ask older relatives or scour estate sales for handkerchiefs to complete the project. Adding border strips around the individual handkerchiefs cuts down on the number of handkerchiefs needed for a quilt. The length and width of the strips can be adjusted according to the size of the handkerchief to achieve uniformly sized blocks.

Inspect each handkerchief and discard any that have holes or threadbare areas. Thoroughly wash handkerchiefs, bleaching if necessary. Iron each handkerchief perfectly flat.

Decide what colour the handkerchief borders will be. Select a colour close to the background of most of the handkerchiefs to make them float and the borders disappear. Choose a contrasting colour to make the borders more prominent and give the appearance of quilt sashing. Purchase fabric in the desired colour or use fabric from your stash.

Measure the largest handkerchief and decide what size the individual quilt blocks (with one handkerchief in the centre) should be. The size and number of quilt blocks determine the overall size of the quilt. There are a couple of ways to adjust the size of the finished quilt top. One is to make individual blocks larger or smaller by increasing or decreasing the width of the strips added to the four sides of each handkerchief. You also can add borders to the quilt top after sewing the blocks together. Collecting more handkerchiefs and adding more blocks is a viable option as well.

Measure the size of the first handkerchief you're using for a block. Subtract that number from the size you've chosen for your quilt blocks. Divide by two and add 3/4 inch (for seam allowances) to determine the width of the strips you'll need for this block. Here's an example: You've decided your finished block should be 12 inches square; the handkerchief is 6 inches square. Subtract 6 inches from 12 inches, divide by two, and add 3/4 inch for seam allowances. The total is 3-3/4 inches, and that is how wide you would cut the border strips for that handkerchief block.

Cut two strips of border fabric the width you determined in Step 4 and the length of the handkerchief side edge. Sew the strips to the left and right sides of the handkerchief, right sides together, with a 1/4-inch seam. Make sure the top and bottom edges of the side strips match the top and bottom edges of the handkerchief. Iron the seam allowances away from the handkerchief.

Measure across the handkerchief from the left strip outside edge to the right strip outside edge. Cut top and bottom border strips the width determined in Step 4 and the measurement of the handkerchief-strip unit from edge to edge. Sew the strips to the top and bottom of the handkerchief-strip unit, right sides together, with a 1/4-inch seam. Iron seam allowances away from the handkerchief.

Repeat Steps 4, 5 and 6 for each handkerchief to complete quilt blocks of the same size.

Lay out the finished handkerchief blocks in an arrangement you find attractive. Sew each horizontal row together this way: Flip the second block from the left onto the first block so right sides are facing. Sew along the right edge of the blocks with a 1/4-inch seam to join. Spread the blocks open as before. Flip the third block from the left onto the second block so right sides are facing, and sew along the right edge of the blocks with a 1/4-inch seam to join. Repeat across the row, then move on to the next horizontal row. Continue until the blocks of each horizontal row have been joined.

Iron all seam allowances in the first horizontal row toward the left side of the quilt. Iron all seam allowances in the second horizontal row toward the right side of the quilt. Continue in this fashion, ironing the seam allowances in each horizontal row in alternating directions.

Join the horizontal rows this way: Flip the second horizontal row from the top up over the first horizontal row so right sides are facing. Butt the seam allowances against each other--this means make sure the seam allowances are ironed in opposite directions where the seams for each block meet. Join the rows with a 1/4-inch seam along the bottom edge. When you're finished, flip the second row down, then flip the third row up over the second row and join. Repeat for all rows.

Add one or more borders, if desired, to enlarge the quilt top. Refer to Step 2 of the previous section for help with colour choices. Sew borders of desired widths using the same techniques described in the previous section for joining fabric strips to handkerchiefs. Mark quilting and pattern lines onto the quilt top with a sharp pencil, taking care not to make the lines too dark.

Cut batting and backing fabric that are approximately 6 inches larger in each direction than the completed quilt top. Layer the quilt top over the batting and backing fabric. Baste all three layers in place using neutral-coloured cotton. Quilt as desired.

Trim the backing and batting even with the edges of the quilt top. Bind the quilt edges with bias binding. With a 1/4-inch seam and right sides together, sew the edge of the binding to each edge of the quilt top. Fold the binding over the edge of the quilt. Slip-stitch the loose edge of the bias binding to the back of the quilt. Remove all basting threads before displaying the quilt.


A rotary cutter and self-healing mat can be substituted for scissors. Use a rotary cutter with a ruler for straight cuts.

Things You'll Need

  • Handkerchiefs
  • Border fabric
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Sewing machine
  • Hand sewing needle
  • Matching cotton
  • Basting thread
  • Quilting thread
  • Quilt batting
  • Backing fabric
  • Double-fold bias binding
  • Iron
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About the Author

Marge Burkell is a professional artist that has been writing since 1985. Specializing in home and garden, quilting and crafts, her work has appeared in "Quilting Today," "Art to Wear" and "Craft & Needlework" as well as her own line of sewing patterns. Burkell authors multiple blogs and has written for iVillage, among other Internet sites.