[BLOG] Ailsa Kay’s Handkerchief Project

By: Alexandra Dragne

Situated somewhere between art and fashion, The Handkerchief Project is bringing a contemporary context to a traditional piece of accessory with attractive designs. A promising sustainable alternative to paper tissues.

How did you come up with the Handkerchief Project?

Ailsa: My dad always used a handkerchief and I was always repulsed by it. So I thought let’s see if I can start using one and find it appealing instead. I started using them and I realised it’s so nice to have this object with you, it’s comforting it’s soft and it’s there for you when you’re ill. And I started noticing that the ones you could buy in the shops are pretty boring and ugly and quite gender specific, squares for men and either embroidered or pink for women. Then I realised it’s quite old fashioned and nobody tried something new with it in a while so I thought maybe I could get people to use handkerchiefs again by giving them a new context, giving them a fresh recent life.

Tradition is also something that interests me a lot, so I thought to experiment with printing techniques and traditional styles. In itself the handkerchief is a traditional object/accessory and I think in the past 50 years the use of it has declined and I think that’s partly due to Kleenex, the brand who started a whole campaign saying ‘don’t carry a cold in your pocket’, but the thing is people use a paper tissue and put it back in their pocket, so there is no difference really. And you’re not gonna share your handkerchief with someone and if you wash your hands, it’s fine. I think it has become more a psychological thing to think it’s unhygienic.

In any case it is a more sustainable solution to paper tissues. I don’t know about other brands, but Kleenex only uses new trees to manufacture disposable handkerchiefs, because that’s the only way you could get the softness. But I think if you have your own nice fabric handkerchief, it gets softer the more you use it.

When did you start this project?

Ailsa: About 2-3 years ago. I was part of a creative community in Osdorp and Bos & Lommer, so I asked some artists and designers if they’d like to help with the project. This is how I have the 5 designs of the handkerchief. I wanted them to be as different from each other as possible. The designs are a mix of techniques: watercolour, hand drawn and digitally made.


What material are they made of?

Ailsa: At the moment, they are made out of cotton, but I’d like to make them out of different materials, because cotton uses a lot of water to be manufactured and it’s not the most sustainable material. In the future, I’d like to use hemp, bamboo or linen to make them.

What about recycled fabric?

Ailsa: That could also be a solution, but I’d have to be very selective with the softness of the material and how old it is and whether it is in a good condition to be used.

What method do you use for printing the designs onto the handkerchiefs?

Ailsa: Digitally printing because it keeps the fabric soft and you can also wash it at high temperature and it is a very environmentally friendly method because it only prints on the bit that you need, whereas screen printing uses a lot of water and a lot of ink. The ink that I’m using to print them is also environmentally friendly.

Could you tell us something about the designs?

Ailsa: I’ve got several themes. One ginkgo leaf, because I like the symbolism of it. They are limited prints, so 5 designs. Then I’d like to make a series of 3 and then with the digital printing use photography with the theme of Holland, but not what you expect, like not the stereotypical Holland, for example an abstract representation of the Dutch sky. There are limitless possibilities.

Different techniques you’d like to use?

Ailsa: I’m thinking of a collaboration with Lucila Kenny to make a series of hand dyed handkerchiefs. And maybe even use natural dyes, the only issue with that would be that you can’t wash them at a higher temperature, in order to keep the colour. I am also interested in this traditional Dutch fabric printing technique and pattern from a town called Staphorst, a needle point ink work called in Dutch ‘stipwerk’. I would be curious to learn this technique. If I use it though the handkerchiefs would be more for the shirt pocket, because I think you won’t be able to use them on your nose because of the ink. This technique intrigues me and I think not everyone knows about it and it would be nice to experiment with it in different forms. I would also like to make a few handkerchiefs that are hand woven.

Ailsa kay2

I heard your handkerchiefs will be soon sold in the Stedelijk! Where else can people buy them?

Ailsa: Well, so far I sold them to friends and family and to a couple of people that came to the exhibition in September where I launched The Handkerchief Project at the Bookstore Space (Amsterdam). You can get them directly from me or from the Stedelijk Museum.

Next events connected to The Handkerchief?

I was thinking to do an anti-Tinder event to incorporate the old-fashioned gesture of dropping a handkerchief next to someone when you like them, to make it more romantic.

What are your expectations about this project?

Ailsa: It’s a bit of an experiment for me, because I don’t know yet if changing the context or giving a new image to the handkerchief will make people think differently about using it. I’m trying to stay expectations-free and keep it open. But I’d like to continue collaborating with people and see what happens. I guess my expectation is to get it somehow out there and get people to see it, get feedback and learn from it.

You can follow the project on: https://www.facebook.com/thehandkerchiefproject/

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