What's That Around Your Neck, Pardner?
A look at one of the most important items in a cowboy's gear.
By Christina Cole
If you've ever watched a western -- and I'm guessing you probably have -- you've seen cowboys with kerchiefs. Maybe you've called them scarves, or bandanas. They go by a lot of different names, but one thing is certain. No real cowboy would work without one.
When I think of bandanas -- which is what I've always called them -- the first image that comes to my mind is the rustler, robber, or the "bad guy" in the old western movies. You know. The one wearing the black hat.
But then, I think, too, of cowboys on cattle drives. I think of the dust and dirt, and I realize the good guys often wore their bandanas pulled up over their faces, as well.
Hiding one's face, or keeping out trail dust aren't the only ways a kerchief can be used, though. Of all the items a cowboy might own, wear, or keep close at hand, nothing serves more purposes than that ubiquitous piece of square cloth.
A surprising fact I learned as I was gathering information about bandanas, kerchiefs -- whatever you wish to call them -- is that unlike the cheap neckerchiefs I've picked up at local stores, usually dark blue or bright red with fancy western designs --- real ones are usually made of silk, not cotton. Real silk is an extremely absorbent fiber which draws moisture away from the skin. It's also warmer than wool for winter wear. A good neck rag usually measures at least 30" x 30" square. You'll see them in a wide variety of colors and patterns.
In cold climes, the primary purpose of a "neck rag" or "wild rag" as they're often known, is to keep cold air away from the neck. The scarf is wrapped loosely around the neck and tucked into the collar. A cowboy's scarf -- by the way -- is NEVER knotted while he's working. He might tie his neck rag into a fancy knot for a shindig or barn dance, but a knot could spell big trouble if a cowboy got himself "hung up" while working. A hard knot won't loosen easily and a man could choke to death from a knotted rag.
So, we know they're warm around the neck, they keep out dirt and dust, and yes, a fellow can pull one up over his face to hide his identity. But that's only the beginning. A kerchief can be used in more ways then you've probably ever considered.
A cowboy can use a "wild rag" to:
- Tie down his hat to keep his ears warm on a cold morning
- Spread out for a tablecloth at mealtime
- Serve as a napkin under his chin when eating
- Carry water to his horse
- Use it as a filter for drinking from a stream
- Clean his revolver
- Wipe his face
- Wrap around his leg if his boot is chafing him
- Protect the back of his neck from sunburn
- Shoo away mosquitos
- Tie up a sore hand or arm
- Leave on a bush as a marker or sign
- Wrap up a small critter
- Wave to others as a signal
- Carry his grub
- Carry firewood
- Gather fruit
- Hold the handle of a hot pan
- Serve as a splint for a broken limb
- Wrap around his hands on a cold day
- Catch a fish
- Shine his boots
- Dry dishes
- Spread across his lap for his best girl to sit on
And, if the need arises, he can even use it to blow his nose.
Bandana. Handkerchief. Neck Rag. Wild Rag. Kerchief. Buckaroo Scarf. I guess it really doesn't matter what you call it, but if you're planning to head west to do any roping, riding, rustling, ranching, or robbing, you might want to stock up on those handy squares of silk.