Boys' Uniform Garments: Kerchief Uses

Figure 1.--

The kerchief of the American West had many uses. Kerchiefs were also worn by sailors. Indeed, many early Boy Scouts wore kerchiefs as younger boys with sailor suits--one of the most popular styles for boys in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Scout kerchief was easily adaptable for many of the same uses adopted by frontiersmen, cavalry soldiers, cowboys and sailors.

Historic Uses

The American frontier

Early neckerchiefs (kerchiefs) by American plains scouts and cowboys were usually worn with the broad point to the front and were loosely knotted behind the head, thus it was possible, in case the dust became very bad, to tighten it over the mouth and nose and use it as a filter against the dust and as a protection against the trail dust as well as the blinding sand storms which sometimes bothered travelers on the wide expanses of the great western plains.

The possibility of the kerchief was not lost on the lawless bandits that infested the plains in those lawless times before the encroachment of civilization and law eforcement. Bandidos used the neckerchief as a facial disguise, and it proved effective because most men looked alike as to their drab outer garments, with wide felt hats flannel shirts and overalls or "chaps" of the plains rider.

Sailors and Sailor Suits

Sailor's did not begin to wear persceibed uniforms until the late 17th century. While officers wore uniforms, seamen often did not. One item of clothing that many many seamen had was a kerchief. It was a useful item to wipe away the sweat in the cramped quarters, especially among the gun crew in men-of-war. The kerchiefs worn by these sailors were highly varied.

Tradition has it that British seamen began wearing black kneckerchiefs as a mourning badge when Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgur. This British Naval hero was revered on both sides of the water, and even though the flefgling American Navy was separated from the British Navy and in fact, in conflict with it, the American Navy continued the use of this to use this folded scarfe. The Americans even adopted the black silk.

Made as it is of tough silk of very light weight, this kerchief has been found to be of great value as a first aid appliance to stop hemorrhage, sling a fractured arm or bind up a broken head. And so its continued use in the modern Naval uniform has the support of both tradition and custom, and of the medical authorities who see in it a first aid appliance of the very highest emergency and greatest utility.

The sailor suit became a standard style for boys after the mid-19th century. It was thus no accident that a proper sailior suit always included the black silk sccarve worn by 18th century seamen. Indeed, many early Boy Scouts wore kerchiefs as younger boys with sailor suits.

Scouting Uses

American Scouting officials in the 1920s reported that, "It is clearly no exaggeration to say that the neckerchief is one of the most characteristic and distinctive parts of the uniform of a Scout. It identifies he district to which he belongs; by the knot in the . end l t reminds him of his Daily Good Turn; it reminds him that he is a Scout with traditions to sustain, and every time he adjusts it on his neck he is challenged to devise more and better uses for it.

One U.S. Scout official was asked list the uses of the kerchief in Scouting. Beginning with a short list, he reports "... now we have more than sixty uses to recommend to Scouts the world over. Whole Scout demonstrations can be given with the help of the neckerchiefs worn by members of the Troop, but after al], the best demonstration is the actual utility, and we will endeavor to confine our description to the actual rather than the theoretical uses of the neckerchief". Some of the uses are a bit far fetched, but the kerchief has learly served Scouts well.

Signal flag

It is natural to think of it as a signal flag (1) a brightly colored kerchief can be attached to a staff, walking stick or canoe paddle, with string or by knotting itself, and used to send Morse code a considerable distance. With two white kerchiefs against a dark background, practice as well as actual sending of messages by the Semaphore code (2) can be done effectively. With practice, a maximum amount of the material can be shown to catch the eye of l he receiver.

Knot tying practice

Another distinct utility for a Troop meeting is knot-tying practice, after the neckerchief has been folded to triangular shape and then down to narrow cravat form. It is especially handy for teaching the square knot and for practice in this and in tripping the knot by upsetting it. This can be done by pulling the tail end of one side of the knot from the standing part to which it belongs; this trips or upsets the square knot, which can be stripped free by encircling the standing part with the fingers and sliding it off the end.

Troop identification

The proper wearing of the neckerchief is useful for Troop and Patrol identification, and a single knot in the point is a "Good Turn" reminder, although the slide is sometimes called this. The wearing of the neckerchief is in itself an indication that the wearer is not a cadet but a Scout.

Belt or strap

Properly folded, from wide to narrow cravat, the neckerchief may be tied in a square or surgeon's knot as a substitute for a belt, and hung over the shoulder and tied under the arm it furnishes a shoulder mat for wall scaling or for carrying timbers or pipe in such a way as to save the uniform from staining or save weight from chafing.

Shoulder mat for wall scaling

In working out problems of rescue, the entire Troop can be directed to put on the wide cravat form of the neckerchief as a smoke mask, covering the nose and mouth and hanging below the chin. To simulate crawling into a smoke-filled room, the triangular bandage can be folded over the eyes of the Scout rescuer and tied in the back in order that his rescue work can be done entirely by feeling—so we have the blindfold for Scout games. Another form of this blindfold can be made by tying a knot in the broad point, which is put over the top of the head; the ends are folded around the neck, crossed in back and tied in front under the chin. This leaves the loose part of the neckerchief over the face, effectively covering the eyes, and is a dressing used in first aid for a burned face and neck.

Scout games

During the period for Scout games, the neckerchief can be used as a sweat band, confining the hair in place for such games; and contesting teams can be identified in two ways—either by neckerchiefs of different colors (if from different districts ), or by wearing the neckerchiefs in a different place if from the same district. These different methods of wearing the neckerchief would include: around the forehead, cowboy fashion, with the broad part in front of the neck, Scout fashion, broad part in back, as a shoulder sash, right or left shoulder; and on the right or left arm between the biceps and shoulder.

In games, such as running the gauntlet, the folded neckerchiefs held by the two ends make swatters which are not dangerous; if held by one end there is a whip lash effect which might be dangerous if flicked into the eye or face. The neckerchief also has a value in the three-legged race, where it can be used to tie the runners together, and in a cockfight, or other race requiring the contestants to be hobbled, it serves very well to tie the wrists or ankles together. In this same way it could be used to hobble a horse by reducing the freedom of his legs, so that he could graze without being able to run or jump. This is sometimes used on the plains.

There is another Scout game called badger pulling, in which two boys on hands and knees with heads close together have a rope or belt slipped over their heads behind the ears, and try to pull each other across a center line by backing up. Two neckerchiefs would serve for confining the "badgers" if not tied too near to the end.

Camp use

The neckerchief can be used as a night cap or ear protector, and this sort of cap would also serve as an identification in games. By tying the broad point of the triangle a sort of hood is made, just the reverse of the blindfold hood, and the ends are tied under the chin. This is excellent for protection against mosquitoes while hiking through woods and brush. Scouts should also be required to make the neckerchief into a muffler for storm or blizzard protection, which would form the 19th use for general purposes.

There are also a number of uses which can be made of the neckerchief around water. One of these is the covering of a pail to serve as a filter for muddy or oily water. It could also serve as a loin cloth or bathing trunks for an unexpected dip in a not too secluded stream.

By putting the broad center of the kerchief to the forehead, letting the point fall toward the back of the head and using the ends crossed in the back and tied in the front, the usual triangular cap bandage is formed. This, used with red kerchiefs, identifies the non swimmers; blue kerchiefs the beginners who can swim fifty feet or more, and white kerchiefs the free swimmers who can swim more than 100 yards.

While working around a camp fire the neckerchief may become a napkin to keep the shirt front clean, for it is easier to wash a neckerchief than a shirt. It may become an apron (24) for kitchen police duty, for it is easier to wash a neckerchief than a pair of Scout breeches. Several kerchiefs may be used as a table cloth to keep the food off the ground, and it may be used as a dust cloth or cover to keep dust, leaves and flies out of opened food which has been prepared for the meal.

A very handy use for the kerchief is the hobo bag made by tying the opposite points together, thus making a receptacle large enough to carry about half a peck of apples, potatoes or other vegetables purchased from a nearby farm.

On the trail the kerchief or triangular bandage may be made into a tump line, which is worn around the forehead and fastened to a pack to ease the strain on the shoulder straps for a long portage. The head is not used as the main carrying force but as an auxiliary for the relief of the shoulder.

Similarly the neckerchief may be used to lash poles or staves together. On a long canoe trip I had a lot of trouble with a canoe which had no keel; it steered badly and could not keep up, so we lashed poles across which kept the boats two feet apart amidships. This made it necessary for us to paddle only on the outside, and with the working neckerchiefs there is a good holding surface and they are easily unfastened when it is necessary to make a portage around a dam or waterfall.

A little handful of fire and a neckerchief will make a smoke signal and will enable Scouts to practice short-distance signaling by puffs of smoke, as they would do on long distance with a blanket and a larger smoky fire. (Information on making smoke signals can be-found in the Scout Hand Book and in books on Indian lore.)

On occasions when carrying a new flag pole to camp or having tent poles projecting behind the touring car or truck, safety regulations require a red flag hung on the projecting end.

Boat Uses

Likewise, a piece of a neckerchief well covered with pitch) or white lead would make a patch for a canoe, or, shredded into strips, would make caulking for a leaky. boat when shoved into the open seams with a pocket: or table knife. If marooned on a broken down motor boat or canoe outboard motor, the neckerchief would probably be the least expensive and most effective thing to sacrifice to make a flare wadded into a ball, saturated with gasoline and lighted, while protected by a mess kit or tin cup. In this case, the neckerchief would serve as wicking and would make the flame last longer than a match or paper. Kerosene, or even cooking grease, would burn similarly if no gasoline were available. The burning of a flare is a distress signal recognized by boatmen the world over.

In making a portage from one lake to another, some Scouts will find it easier to carry loads on their heads. A folded neckerchief or a neckerchief rolled into a thick bundle, can be carried on top of the head to serve as padding. It might also be used to prevent chafing wherever heavy weights come either on the shoulder or in the palm of the hand, where it may be used as a glove to prevent blisters.

Use on Horses in Emergency

Any Scout who has ever been in a burning stable realizes the difficulty in getting horses to go out through the dark doorway. The light confuses them, so it is necessary to blindfold the horse. A neckerchief tied over the horse's eyes will serve admirably for this purpose and will be found large enough. Similarly, Scouts who are fortunate enough to go hiking on horseback or with a baggage wagon may find it necessary to pad portions of the harness to prevent saddle or harness galls. A neckerchief would serve the purpose in these emergencies.

Groups of Scouts who are living in movable camps will find that in packing up each day for loading canoe, truck, car, pack horse, etc., there will be numberless bundles to be tied up. In the wilds there is seldom enough rope, so that the neckerchief folded into a narrow cravat form is excellent to tie up square packages, two of the neckerchiefs being usually required for an ordinary flat bundle. In making the blanket roll— famous in the Spanish American War — the ends of the roll may be fastened together with a neckerchief if no straps or rope is available; it is not beautiful, but it is effective. This is the horse-collar pack, which is also used with the official haversack recommended by the Scout Supply Department.

For Group Work

There are a number of distinct uses of the kerchief requiring the cooperation of several persons. Among these are the Life Line, or Guard Rope; the Rope Ladder for rescue from a well; the Boat Sail and the Emergency Clothing.

To make the life line and rope ladder, a sort of drill can be developed so that it can be done smoothly. The Scout should be cautioned to tie the ends at least six inches from the tip, so that the stronger part of the cloth may be used and undue strain will not be put on a very narrow area, thus jeopardizing the safety of the person who is being rescued.

The Troop should be directed: "Prepare to form a life line. Fall in in single file. Remove neckerchiefs. Connect neckerchiefs from the right. Tie off neckerchiefs." At this last command, every one from the right of the line ties his neckerchief to the end of the next neckerchief, using a square knot, the last person in line being the only one who does not have to tie. The next command would be: "Patrol leaders inspect knots." A Troop of thirty Scouts would give a life line 70 or 80 feet long with which to get a person out of the water, ice, or to be used as a guard rope.

For a rope ladder the commands would be: "Prepare to make a rope ladder. Fall in single file. Count three. Ones and twos link neckerchiefs and tie off." (The broad parts of the neckerchiefs are looped together and tied with a square knot so that each one is a complete circle.) "Number threes connect links." Each number three then loops his neckerchief through the links of the chain made by number two to his left and number one to his right, and ties.

As a Sail

The construction of a boat sail and the emergency clothing are similarly done. The corners of two or three kerchiefs are tied together, then the next row is knotted to it to make the strip wider, the middle knots being interlocked. Considerable sail surface could be secured with four or six neckerchiefs, but it would be a poor substitute for clothing—rather drafty to say the least. If there are pins available in the first aid kit, a very much better job could be done in dressing the fellow whose clothes were lost—and this is, of course, a comedy stunt rather than} anything to inspire serious thought among spectators.

Summary of Uses for the Scout Neckerchief

The Scout Neckerchief may be used:

1. As an International Morse signal flag. 2. For sending messages by Semaphore code. 3. In knot-tying practice. 4. For Troop and Patrol identification. 5. As a reminder of the Scout Good Turn, (single knot). 6. As indication that wearer is not a Cadet, but a Scout. 7. As a substitute for a belt. 8. As a shoulder mat. 9. As a smoke mask. 10. As a blindfold for Scout games. 11. As a dressing for a burned face and neck. 12. As a sweat band for confining the hair. 13. For identifying contesting teams. 14. As a swatter in playing games. 15. In the three-legged race, to tie legs together. 16. In games requiring contestants to be hobbled. 17. In game called "Badger Pulling," to make binder for heads. 18. As a night cap or ear protector. 19. As a muffler for storm or blizzard. 20. As a cover for a pail of water. 21. As a loin cloth or bathing trunks. 22. As a triangular cap bandage. 23. As a napkin. 24. As an apron. 25. As a table cloth. 26. As a dust cloth or cover. 27. As a "Hobo" bag. 28. For a tump line to carry a load. 29. To lash poles or staves together. 30. As a smoke signal. 31. As a red flag on projecting end of load. 32. As a patch for a canoe, when properly treated. 33. As caulking for a leaky boat, when properly treated. 34. For distress signal, lighted for a "flare." 35. As a pad for the head in carrying heavy loads and wherever needed to prevent chafing. 36. As a padded glove for the hand, to prevent blisters. 36a. As a blindfold for rescuing a horse from fire. 37. To pad portions of harness to prevent chafing. 38. To tie up square packages. 39. For fastening ends of the blanket roll. 40. For making life line or guard rope. 41. For making rope ladder. 42. For making boat sail. 43. For making emergency clothing [COMMODORE W. E. Longfellow, "Scouting With a Neckerchief." The Boy Scout Service Library, Series B, No. 6, Boy Scouts of America, 1927]

Moden Uses

While some of the Scouting uses are a bit streached. The kerchief is a very useful garment. Some of the more practical modern uses include:

Hiking and climbing

These are little known, but easy to find, 4 foot kerchiefs. they can be used for: a makeshift facemask, river water strainer(not very well, but gets much of the dirt out, at least), with the paracord it can help make a little shelter sort of deal, wet them to use as wash cloths, keep them dry and use 'em for towels, wrap one right and use it as a scarf, tie it right and use it as a sling, or even a tourniquet, when wet they are handy pot holders, tied at the 4 corners right they make a neat hobo bindle, folded and tied around the forehead they are excellent sweatbands, and can be used as an emergency bandage. And, like any good kerchief, they serve as dust masks and hankies.


A cotton bandana/kerchief can be invaluable on the road. Great for drying hands or a quick wash up when paper towels aren't provided. Wear it wet around your neck to cool off, or dry to keep warm. I frequently take several and give them away to new friends and free up luggage space... colors and designs are interesting for those in other lands.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: April 22, 2000
Last updated: April 22, 2000