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History through handkerchiefs: Conifer resident tracks women's tears cried over joy, love and loss

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By Barbara Ford

Katie Dix of Conifer weaves women’s history into the shape of a handkerchief.

“I am a storyteller about women’s social history, and the stories are all hidden in the folds of vintage handkerchiefs,” Dix said.

Dix displays her textile biographies in a presentation called the Story of Vintage Hankies, which she gives to women’s groups and historical societies. Recently, she presented to the Foothill Floozies, a mountain chapter of the Red Hat Society. The Red-Hatters, a group for women over 50, were decked out in purple attire and red hats adorned with feathers and sequins. They listened raptly to Dix’s presentation at El Rancho.

Dix has been giving her presentation locally and hopes to enlighten people about the historical significance of something as small as a handkerchief.

“The driving force to what I’m doing is traveling and meeting women of similar sensibilities,” said Dix in her soft Southern accent.

It wasn’t the hankies’ bright colored flowers, hand-stitched hems and 1940s starlet appeal that caught Dix’s attention. Instead, she could see every journey made by a woman who could take only what she could carry, every flirtation, and every tear cried over joy, love and loss.

Dix has found that most stories start within women’s own families. She has hankies from her mother, grandmother and just about every woman in her family.

Dix said people bring her their vintage hankies and hope to learn more about the women in their families.

“Every time you look at the hankie, that person is standing right next to you,” Dix said. “I urge people (who) know a story about a hankie (to) write it down, because the day we die the stories are gone.”

In her presentation, Dix covers how to care for the historical linen treasures women may find tucked in drawers, family Bibles and at second-hand stores. She suggests putting them in the freezer for 24 hours once a year to get rid of dust mites and storing them flat. If folded, they tend to rot along the folds. Hankies that have true value, both sentimentally and historically, should be stored in an archival box.

One of her favorite hankie stories involves 1940s screen star Joan Crawford. At a restaurant, Crawford is regaled in Hollywood glamour, wearing her signature red lipstick. She used the dinner napkin to dab her lips, and the searing red color stained it. Abashed, she went home and called her dressmaker to make red hankies in the same color as her lipstick.

Hankie colors tell the story of the era they’re from. Dust Bowl hankies are muted brown, pea green and faded orange, the colors of dust and dreams in the wind.

Queen Victoria introduced mourning hankies when she lost her beloved Prince Albert in 1861. Her dressmakers created black hankies to go with her black mourning drape. Black mourning hankies went out of fashion when the last Civil War widows died.

Today, at the funerals of Marine Corps veterans of the Iraq war, white hankies with the corps’ symbol embroidered onto one corner are presented to widows and mothers. Dix said these are a rare find, and she doesn’t anticipate they will be in second-hand stores or auctions anytime soon. Though she hasn’t laid her hands on one, she hopes one of her “hankie hunters” will find one. She wants to see it and especially hear the story that goes along with it.

Dix said that one country with hardly any vintage linens left is Sweden. In the early part of the 20th century, health authorities warned the population to destroy linens used by patients with tuberculosis.

In the United States, Little Lulu and the advent of Kleenex blew away the handkerchief era. Lulu was the main character in 2 million Golden Books that were printed and included a small packet a Kleenex. These books were handed out to schoolkids around 1950. The Kleenex slogan was, “Don’t put a cold in your pocket.”

“I’ve never used a Kleenex in my life,” Dix sniffs in disdain.

However, Dix is coy when asked how many hankies she has.

“I have never admitted how many hankies I have, at least not in front of someone who would tell my husband,” she said.

Dix had the idea for her hankie presentation after seeing something similar on linens a few years ago in Nashville. Dix hopes to take her presentation nationwide, and has a creative team that’s put together print and video media to get the word out about Dix’s hankie folklore, an oral tradition of dabbers and blowers.

Dix considers herself a “local lady trying hard.” As she explains it: “My marketing philosophy is that if you keep stirring, something good will happen.”