Skip to content

Cowboys Tie One On!

Jesse James did, it so did John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Billy the Kid, even Annie Oakley did it. What did they do? They tied a big, colorful “wild rag” around their necks. You might know wild rags as bandanas, neckerchiefs, buckaroo scarves, or neck rags. Whatever you call ‘em they are iconic symbols of the wild West. And westerners like outlaw Butch Cassidy or famous rancher Charles Goodnight used these important accessories in a long list of ways.

The wild rag started in the mid-1800s as a piece of used, patterned flour sack tied around the neck for warmth and protection from trail dust—especially important if you were riding drag behind a herd of longhorns. Or, in the case of Billy the Kid, hiding your face while you robbed a stagecoach. You could even use one to wrap up the stolen loot.

Cowboys quickly discovered lots of uses for their wild rags. They could strain water or coffee through ‘em, protect the back of their necks from sunburn, wipe off sweat, use it as a bandage in an emergency, hobble a horse with it, or tie down a hat. Wild rags could substitute for potholders, tablecloths, or dish towels. You could even clean a gun with it. Plus, wild rags just looked good and were a reflection of a cowpoke’s style. Whether a cowboy or cowgirl chose fancy patterns or solid colors, the wild rag was useful as well as a fashion statement.

The first flour-sack scarves quickly evolved to patterned cotton squares made for the purpose, and for those who could afford it, scarves made of silk. Lest you think a silk scarf might not be practical, think again. Silk stays warmer than cotton or wool (and it’s not itchy). Silk also wicks away moisture, wears well, feels good, and won’t chap your neck.

Wearing a wild rag is high on the do list for proper cowhands along with:

•When on horseback, don’t wave at someone, nod instead.

•Say howdy, not hello.

•Never ride another man’s horse.

•Never wear another man’s hat.

•Be courteous to ladies.

•Don’t cheat at cards.

•Be careful where you point your gun.

•Keep an extra wild rag your saddlebag.

Tempted to try a western wild rag? Here are some things to know. Wild rags are large, measuring at least 30” or 40” square. Some are as large as 50” square. To wear a wild rag you have to decide how you are going to tie your scarf. Will you fold it in a triangle, place the triangle in front of your neck, wrap the ends around your neck once or twice and then tie a simple square knot in front? Maybe you’ll prefer a classic, but more complicated buckaroo square knot. It’s my favorite. There are lots of wild rag websites to teach you how to tie a variety of knots. Including how to tie a wild rag as a cowgirl hair accessory.

For variety, instead of knots, you can use simple or elaborate scarf slides made of everything from woven leather to carved wood, or metal. Rings made from antique silver spoons work, too. Scarf slides add a bit more pizzaz to your western look.

Caring for a silk wild rag doesn’t mean you have to send it to the dry cleaners. Instead wash it by hand in cold water, but don’t wring or scrunch it. You can even machine wash your scarf carefully. Put your wild rag in a pillowcase with other delicate items and wash it on gentle cycle in cold water. Stretch it out flat on a flat towel and roll both up in a long roll a couple of times to absorb the moisture. Unroll and let it dry away from direct sun. Wrinkled? Iron it under a towel or gently steam it, and you’re ready to wear it again.

Whether you’re a real cowpoke or a western wanna-be, have a bit of fun with a classic symbol of the Old West. Choose a wild rag and tie one on! Way to go cowpoke!

This has been another episode of Texas Brave and Strong—The best little podcast in Texas. Thanks for tuning in, remember to subscribe, and share this podcast with a friend. Ya’ll come back.