Comfort and protection

Never leave home without a handkerchief, advises Annalisa Barbieri

I am never without a handkerchief. Remembering to put one in my pocket, or discovering that actually I had one all along, makes me feel safe and secure, knowing I am ready for any nose or spill emergency.

When I was at primary school, we had a fabulous headmistress called Sister Francis. Naturally, she wore a habit, and from the few wisps of hair I could see peeking out from beneath her wimple, I think she may have been a redhead. Her hands were extremely smooth from so much wringing. She would tell wonderful "and the moral of this story is" tales, some of which still affect the way I behave today.

One of them was a story of how important handkerchiefs are and how vital their carriage is. Once upon a time, said Sister Francis one day at assembly, there was a child. And this child always came to school with a freshly laundered and ironed handkerchief. But as time went on, the mother (poor mother, always her fault) decided that it wasn't worth giving her child a washed and pressed hanky, that it was too much hard work. So she gave her offspring a tissue instead. And, as time went on, she thought, "Oh well, if a tissue is needed, I'm sure someone else will give it to her" - and the child went to school with no nose-wiping implement at all. I'm guessing the moral here was that once you start cutting corners, there's no end to it.

I have two drawers of handkerchiefs now, almost every one of them used regularly. They must be in cotton or linen (synthetics don't allow for good absorption), and they come in a variety of sizes, from ladylike purse size to huge, hooter-blowing numbers of tablecloth proportions. Some are intricately embroidered with my initials on; some date back to childhood; some belonged to my grandparents. Each one tells a story and sees me through a particular event.

My mother gave me the really soft cotton lawn one when my child was born - I was covered in a hideous rash and everything hurt my skin except for this wonderful, salve-like cloth that she tucked around my neck. I cannot bear to use it, as it has become so precious to me. It's a symbol of the tiniest detail that only a mother would notice, the endless thought a mother devotes to protecting and comforting. But then, I have many far less precious, big cotton ones that I use when I have to snort and sob.

For gentlemen wanting to display their handkerchiefs in their top pocket, there are innumerable folds to them, just as ties have knots. A handkerchief folded simply at right angles is known as the presidential fold; there are the one-, two-, three- and four-point folds, all self-explanatory; puffs (literally puffed out); and shells, the latter being folded into pleats. But the hankie should always be ironed before being coerced into any sort of shape.

To me, a gift of handkerchiefs is never boring. In fact, a very wise friend buys me three new, glorious ones each year.