Embroidered handkerchief of friendship

Valentine’s Day seems the perfect time to mention the wonderful embroidered handkerchiefs of love from Northern Portugal.

You can find these delightful pieces, or products inspired by them, in most souvenir shops in Portugal but they used to serve a practical purpose in the romantic lives of people from the Minho region.

Portuguese handkerchief of love, embroidered with a message. Translation: The axe easily cuts firewood but no axe in the world can cut our friendship.
Translation: The axe easily cuts firewood but no axe in the world can cut our friendship.

Portuguese handkerchiefs of love as public signs of commitment

Much like a traditional valentine, these handkerchiefs were designed to ask “Will you be mine?” although they could be sent at any time of the year, not just on Valentine’s Day.

Once a girl reached marriageable age and had set her sights on a young man, she would embroider a handkerchief of love especially for him. The designs she chose were symbols of romance and their future relationship and she would usually embroider a written message or poem declaring her affections for her intended.

The young woman would know if she had successfully won him over if the man wore her handkerchief in public.

By wearing a lovers’ hanky around his neck or in his jacket pocket, especially at major events like parties and fairs, the newly committed man would let remaining single women know he was off the market. If he didn’t, the woman who made the hanky would have to get over him and start looking for a new potential husband.

Origins of the traditional embroidered hankies

The tradition of embroidering handkerchiefs with messages of devotion originated in the 17th century among aristocrats but by the 18th century it had been adapted into this courtship ritual and become part of popular culture.

The designs became more colourful and although spelling mistakes were rife, the handkerchiefs were bright, cheerful and pretty.

This very detailed embroidered Portuguese handkerchief has earned the seal of approval from the certifying body
This very detailed hanky has earned the seal of approval from the certifying body

Although the methods of establishing a relationship have changed over the years, the craft of making these beautiful hankies is still alive, especially in northern Portugal.

There is even a committee which evaluates handkerchiefs according to a wide range of criteria including the motifs, threads, size, colours and spelling mistakes. If a hanky meets their requirements, they certify it as an approved handicraft so look out for this if you want to be sure you’re buying a quality Portuguese product.

There are usually some excellent examples available to look at, or better still buy, at the annual national handicrafts fair in Vila do Conde, just north of Porto which runs from July to August.

Handkerchief stall at the national handicraft fair, Vila do Conde, Portugal
Handkerchief stall at the national handicraft fair, Vila do Conde, Portugal

This post forms part of my Personal A to Z of Portugal.


  1. And about love handkerchiefs, I would like to invite you to visit a great exibhition in “A Arte da Terra” (near the Lisbon Cathedral), about this portuguese art. Till 4th March. But you’ll find Love handkercheifs in “A Arte da Terra”, all time…

    1. Hi!I found this blog while I do some research about Lisbon and etopry. All this passion to my city touched me and made me remember the pride of the beautiful city I have.Thank you so much for admiring Lisbon and Fernando Pessoa, who is one of my favorite poets.I have one musical suggestion to do. dead combo , their music have Lisbon like inspiration.Hope you like it.A Kiss From LisbonAndrea

  2. What a lovely tradition – looking at some of those handkerchiefs the girls must have been smitten!

    1. Author

      I agree, and I think this was their opportunity to ‘sell’ themselves to the guy they fancied so the declarations of love tended to be quite strong.

  3. I had to sew one of those aprons too- nightmare! Read this just in time Julie- I shall pinch a large white paper tissue out of the husband’s box(he hasn’t got a hankie) and felt tip a message of love on there for tomorrow!

    1. Author

      Good idea! I still haven’t had time to make mine a card so that’ll have to do 🙂

  4. what a lovely post – i had no idea about any of this – it’s fascinating!
    one question – what happens to the poor girls that can’t sew?!!! (like me!!) – are they destined for a life of spinsterhood?!

    1. Author

      Not sure, but I think I would have ended up lonely, too!

      All girls would have been taught to sew at an early age though so that by the time they needed to catch a man, they had the skills, if not the charms to do so. Or maybe they got their mums to do it for them…

      1. ah! I remember yr7 at secondary school – needlework lessons involved making an apron that you would then use in Yr8 cookery classes – I maintain to this day that’s the reason I can’t cook ‘cos I can’t sew LOL!

        1. Author

          Sounds plausible to me 🙂 I was rubbish at sewing and hated my needlework teacher. And my cookery teacher, come to think of it. I’ve managed to learn how to cook but sewing is still best avoided.

        2. Hi there I just wanted to cnotragulate you on your blog! I’m travelling to Portugal for the first time at the end of November and am very excited because everyone I know who has been there tells me how bewitching it is. Then I found your blog and it’s helping me to prepare with what to see, do, where to eat, where to visit. For that, I thank you!! and look forward to writing a Portugal series on our return. Will definitely let you know how we get on.

          1. Author

            Hi Milson, I’m sure you’ll have a great trip – glad I can be of some help to you.

          2. thanks – and glad it’s helping!
            anything you need to know – feel free to ask and I’ll try to help – and have a FAB time in November – this is a beautiful country

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