Cotton is grown and woven around the world. It is the most widely cultivated non-food crop and the most woven natural fiber in the world – second to only polyester in total fiber usage.
So when it comes to functional handkerchiefs, it makes sense that cotton is thought of as the only material option.
However, cotton fabric is not the best handkerchief material.
Functionality being how a handkerchief performs in its day-to-day use. This includes hand-wiping, face-touching, glasses-cleaning, nose-blowing, and all of the endless practical reasons one carries a handkerchief.
The difference in cotton and linen handkerchief performance comes down to their fiber structure.
Cotton is a seed hair with hollow and twisted fibers ranging from 1-2 inches in length while flax (the natural fiber used to weave linen) consists of elongated fibers that range from 12-24 inches in length and are straight, smooth, and cylindrical in shape.
These subtle details at the microscopic level are responsible for a shockingly large difference in how each performs as a daily-use handkerchief.
1. Cotton holds on to moisture & particles
For functional handkerchiefs, rapid drying is a necessary feature. One simply cannot reuse the same handkerchief all day if it does not dry quickly between uses.
Additionally, in most cases, whether blowing one's nose or cleaning up a spill, handkerchiefs need to be able to absorb moisture instantaneously.
Cotton fails to deliver on both fronts.
While cotton is capable of absorbing up to 25% of its weight in water, it does so at a slow rate.
This is because cotton's complex fiber structure makes it difficult for water droplets to enter the fabric. The droplets must travel over and under the various, chaotic fibers —traversing cotton's small pore spaces— and once absorbed, moisture has just as difficult of a time leaving. The result is cotton having slow absorption and drying speeds.
In the same way, it becomes easy for dust, allergens, and other particles to remain trapped in cotton fabric.
Meanwhile, linen has larger pore spaces, meaning no trapped particles and moisture is rapidly absorbed and dried.
The difference in pore spaces is so large that air can pass through linen at four times the speed of cotton – allowing for moisture to easily come and go.
2. Cotton is a weak fiber
This is also due to cotton's chaotic fiber structure. The various thin and hollow strands that break off in all directions provide it with good flexibility, but little in the way of strength.
This is why it's not uncommon for cotton handkerchiefs or clothing to develop holes after long-term use.
With flax, the individual fibers are long, continuous, and straight, so when they are pulled they act more like ropes in tension – creating a significantly stronger fabric. In fact, flax is the strongest natural plant fiber in the world. This is why, when well kept, linen materials can last for decades.
3. Cotton is not antibacterial
As opposed to cotton, flax fibers naturally inhibit bacteria growth.
Flax's antibacterial qualities are due to its rapid moisture wicking —preventing the type of moisture-rich environment bacteria thrive in— and its chemical composition.
Lignin is what makes plants and trees "woody." It provides plants with their stiff outer wall that, like the bark of a tree, protects it from pests and other environmental predators, and even works to inhibit bacteria growth.
These same characteristics extend to the fiber's use as a woven fabric.
For cotton fabric to exhibit similar antibacterial characteristics it must be treated with chemical additives, which are not natural and wash off over time.
4. Cotton shrinks
When raw cotton is spun into thread its fibers are stretched, which creates the tension needed to weave the fibers into a fabric. However, because cotton fibers are highly elastic, once the fabric is heated, the fibers lose their tension, causing the material to shrink.
Linen is known to shrink as well, however our handkerchiefs are made of pre-washed linen fabric – keeping shrinkage to 3% or less.
Those are the major functional reasons why one should avoid cotton in their search for the best daily-use handkerchief.
And if it's not yet clear, the difference in each fiber's environmental impact is enormous.
More and more, the environmental impact of a product is a necessary consideration before making a purchase. We know that this is an important consideration when it comes to handkerchiefs because many turn to them as an eco-friendly replacement for paper tissues.
We adopt this same outlook with how we make our handkerchiefs. We hold ourselves to the highest standard in regard to sourcing to ensure no corners are cut on the journey from flax plant to handkerchief - sourcing from only 100% traceable European-grown flax.
The care and expertise displayed by Europe's artisanal flax farmers is truly unparalleled, while cotton is grown mostly as a cash crop, with much less care given to its surrounding environment.
1. Cotton requires a lot of water
Cotton cultivation soaks up a serious amount of water.
It takes an extraordinary 2,700 liters of water to make 1 cotton shirt - the equivalent to what a single person drinks in 2.5 years. This water use impact is compounded as 73% of the world's cotton is grown on land that requires irrigation and 57% takes place in areas under high or extreme water stress.
Meanwhile, European flax is grown from rainwater alone – without any irrigation systems.
2. Cotton is chemical intensive
Cotton fibers are exposed seed hairs with nearly no protection from their long list of predators.
Therefore, it becomes necessary to treat cotton plants with an excessive amount of pesticides and insecticides. On the whole, worldwide cotton farming takes up 2.4% of the world’s arable land but accounts for a disproportionate 24% of the world’s insecticide and 11% of the world’s pesticide use – more than any other crop in the world
Additionally, cotton cultivation relies heavily on the use of synthetic fertilizers. Which, in combination with inefficient irrigation systems, brings the unintended side effect of fertilizers entering and polluting waterways.
All the while, flax, with its natural plant protection and low nutrient needs, requires 5 times less fertilizer and pesticides.
3. Cotton's carbon footprint
The production of these agrochemicals are highly carbon intensive processes.
So much so that the cultivation of traditional cotton emits an average of 3.236 tonnes of CO2-equivalents/hectare – with 70-90% of which being directly related to fertilizer and pesticide use.
While all of the flax used for our handkerchiefs comes from European Flax certified farms – meaning, among other things, the cultivation process is carbon-negative (removes more carbon from the air than is emitted).
4. Cotton is GMO
Currently, 88% of U.S. cotton acres are planted with genetically engineered, insect-resistant seeds.
European flax is a 100% non-GMO, zero-waste, self-pollinating crop.
5. Cotton degrades soil
Cotton cultivation severely degrades soil quality. Conventional cotton is often grown as a monocrop (repeatedly grown year after year). This leads to field exhaustion and agricultural expansion into new areas to sustain production yields.
Whereas, flax can grow in poor soil, not useable for food production, and can even rehabilitate polluted soils. Flax is often grown as a restorative rotation crop by farmers as it naturally produces optimal soil quality, thereby increasing returns on the following crops.
All in all, the use of cotton as a handkerchief material is undesirable.
Not only does it not deliver the best handkerchief performance, it also inflicts a large negative impact on the environment.
For both of these reasons we have chosen to make our handkerchiefs of Irish linen, sourced from 100% European-origin flax.
If you are seeking the ultimate handkerchief experience – there is no better option.