A Nostalgic Journey With Fabric Friends By Carolyn Ellertson This month – Guest columnist and long-time apron collector Carolyn Ellertson shares her memories, love and collection of aprons spanning four decades. What weighs almost nothing; comes in every conceivable size, shape and color; is easily recognized all over the world, and sends waves of nostalgia over those it comes in contact with? The answer to that question is a no-brainer for apron lovers.
They may differ in their reason for loving them, but the result is the same – they are eagerly snatching them up anyhow and anywhere they can find them, and they guard what they have like junkyard dogs, particularly if they came by them through family.
As shown in this 1932 store circular, aprons were a necessary fashion statement. It is not unusual to hear people say they have a love affair with aprons. I can attest to that. Why else would I have kept buying them for 40 years, only to admire them, store them in a box,and keep looking for more? Like scrooge counting his money, I go through the box(es) from time to time (usually at moving time or when rearranging storage), admiring each one, analyzing the fabric, checking out the clever and creative ways women put them together, and reflecting on the times each seems to represent.
Those times are times I love to remember, even though I know there’s no bringing them back. That’s what history is all about. Preserve what you can, when you can. I guess I am trying to do a small part of preserving history in one of the few ways I am able – one apron at a time. I grew up in the country, where everyone wore aprons, especially the two generations before me – my mother and grandmother.
So did my friends’ mothers and grandmothers. It was simply part of the culture. Aprons bring back memories of Christmas parties or potlucks at the Community Hall, net stockings filled with candy and an orange in the toe, fabulous food served by apron-swaddled women, happy to show off their cooking skills and exchange gossip, and hungry family and friends dying to dig in. They remind me of my mother canning anything she could get her hands on over a hot stove in a kitchen that was probably 120 degrees without air conditioning or even a fan.
They remind me of taking a salt shaker to Grandma Dell’s garden so I could eat vine-ripened tomatoes almost as fast as she could pick’em an put’em in that big apron she wore all the time, along with the green beans. They remind me that they were devised first and foremost as protective gear, and safe came before pretty. The pretty part came later. I suppose anything that covers up the front of you could be considered an apron, if that’s what it is being used for at the time.
Does a large tea towel folded kitty cornered and tied around you qualify? I think so. They sure did the job in a pinch. As women had more time for “pretty”, they took advantage of it, and spent many hours doing handwork on items for themselves or someone they loved. A beautifully sewn and decorated apron was an object of delight to the recipient, not to mention the fact that it reflected the love and skills of the creator.
That, in turn, was one of the few ways women were able to get recognition for some of their skills, re-enforce their self-worth and insure much needed attention for themselves. They were a common bridal gift, and often made in advance of that special day to be tucked away in some young girls hope chest until the time came to use them. An apron was a blank canvas from which to begin a work of art as unique as its maker, and because of its manageable size was a common choice upon which to try a new technique, and it could be personalized..
It required far less material than a piece of clothing, and was a practical choice, as it could still be serviceable even if the experiment failed!
Cora Belle and Elsie cross-stitched for eternity. A new apron was like a sewing and needlework classroom in a box. One could be as simple as a piece of material gathered onto a strip of fabric or ribbon, or as elaborate and complicated as the most treasured designer dress. Some qualify in both categories. Simple to make, good enough to go anywhere like my black lace over black tulle, which has a black velvet ribbon for the waist band.. So simple a child could make it, but totally sophisticated and beautiful and special.
I wonder about the people who wore each one, and what drew them to one over another, and the memories it brought them. Once when I offered an exhibit of my aprons at a large county fair, one of the younger ladies preparing the exhibit welled up with tears when she took a simple terrycloth apron out of the box. It was just one of those simple ones which hung over the neck like a scarf, with a pocket at each end, but she embarrassingly apologized for her tears, explaining that it was just like the one her late grandmother used to wear when she dried her glassware.
She would put a hand in each pocket to make two-handed work of them and get them done all the faster. How It Began……… I made my first apron when I was 10 years old, and barely old enough to join the rural 4H Club where we lived. The three mandatory projects for junior sewing were a simple gathered apron, a shoulder-length garment cover and a gathered dirndl skirt. I found out via the grapevine last week that my former 4-H leader had just passed away in my old hometown – 52 years later! She will never know how much making that little gathered apron played in starting me down the path of a lifetime of sewing.
Between she and my mother, I learned to make almost anything. Aprons have traditionally been used as a teaching tool for the needle arts since their inception, and my own collection reflects almost every form of sewing and embroidery work there is. It only made sense to try something new out on a small scale, and many women did just that. Not always perfectly, but what the heck, a person has to start somewhere. One of my most beautiful aprons is a white organdy bib apron with ruffled straps that cross in the back; is beautifully and generously embroidered, and which has a row of purchased ruffled trim attached just above the hem – upside down, and inside the waistband of the beautiful yellow-tiered nylon apron, one can see the stub of a perforated price tag completely encased inside, but visible to the naked eye because of the sheerness of the fabric.
This might account for the perfect condition I was able to buy it in, which was complete with the original tag still attached.
Embroidered organdy pinafore apron with upside down ruffle. Getting Serious……. I first became a serious collector of aprons when I got married while working full time and attending college at night. Hard for me to believe, but that has been 40 years ago! I had about an hour and a half between the time I got off work, and the time my first class started. I also had to cook dinner for my new husband, change out of my white dental assistant’s dress, and commute.
This played great havoc with my school clothes, and generated cleaning bills I couldn’t afford for sweaters, skirts and slacks. One weekend I saw an apron at a yard sale, and decided maybe I should buy one to protect my school clothes while I fixed dinner. It was decidedly uncool at that time (early 1960s) to be overly domestic, and most of my friends would have laughed at me had they known I wore one, but I decided to buy it anyway.
After all, they were good enough for mom and grandma and everyone else I respected and loved, so I figured they were good enough for me. No one would see me in it in the privacy of my own home anyway, right? My first and still my favorite after 40 years is that same apron – French blue taffeta, with a large pink and red cabbage rose appliquéd on it. After I got it home, I realized I could never really wear it for the purpose I bought it for – not only was it too pretty, but it was taffeta — one of those special fabrics that needed cleaning, as referenced above.
Of course I had no choice but to obtain another, more practical one. I didn’t buy one, but made two aprons from a pattern I sent away for from Woman’s Day magazine, both of washable cotton – one calico and one a wallpaper print. They were so adorable and serviceable, I was hooked and the rest, as they say, is history. My collection has been enlarged substantially over the years by my family and in particular my sisters, Joan and Kathy. Any time they have seen one anywhere that was unusual or cute, they bought it for me, and they continue to do so to this very day.
From time to time an unpretentious package wrapped in brown paper comes to my mailbox from my sister who lives in another state, and when I open it, there are a couple of new mystery aprons I am seeing for the first time. They have come from yard, church, farm and estate sales, antique stores, friends and boutiques all over Washington and Oregon, and I would not have half so many unique and special ones were not for their support.
Blue taffeta and cabbage rose.
The 100-year old apron.
My oldest is probably one given me by my 83-year- old mother in law, Phyllis Mitchell, of Mill Creek WA. It was worn by her grandmother, and is probably more than 100 years old. It’s an ankle- length half apron of plain cream fabric with a wide band of crocheted trim around the bottom (size 30 thread) and no other ornamentation of any kind, with the exception of three hand-sewn tucks around the bottom, not even a pocket. Which brings me to an unusual contradiction on the subject of aprons.
Some years back, while researching a family history project, I was telling an octogenarian about exhibiting my collection at a large local fair, knowing that she would relate to both the aprons and the fair. I mentioned that “in the old days” almost every woman wore them to protect their clothes from getting dirty. On the contrary, she told me, they always kept a clean one hanging by the door to slip over their dress when they saw company coming because their dress was usually soiled and a clean apron covered it up! Who am I to argue with someone who had been there and done that?? I think most of us are of the mind that they were put on to keep a dress clean for as long as possible, but who’s to say a person couldn’t have a clean one hanging by the door to spruce up in a hurry with? She was 86 years old, still living at home with her equally aged sister and blind, but sharp as a tack.
I never met her personally, spoke with her only twice, and she lived across the United States from me, but we still had a subject both of us understood. Not only did we share something in common, but she had her sister copy articles in her personal scrapbook pertaining to my ancestors and take photographs of the church they had all shared for decades, which I would never have had any other way. Her name was Hazel Cooper, and she lived in Amsterdam NY. Think I’ll ever forget her? Not a chance Types of Aprons – Something for Everyone…….
It’s my opinion that one of the main reasons for the popularity of collecting aprons and/or apron patterns (yep, I have both.) is the sheer variety out there. It is astounding! There is something for everyone. Love to sew? They come in a staggering variety of styles, which just happen to address your individual needs, and are limited only by the creativity of the millions of women who have made them, and the materials available to them at the time. There’s a certain mystique about the vintage ones because with the exception of assembly-line articles, each is an original.
Many aprons are simple enough for a child to make, and can be made without any pattern at all. It is nothing more than a piece of fabric held in place by being attached to a waistband of whatever you choose, but it was what was applied to it that made a one-of-a-kind creation of it. They could be as plain or fancy as one had time for and embellished with whatever kind of needlework or craft you knew how to do. Busy woman? No problem. Choose a cut-in-one-piece style; also good for beginning sewers and children.
Can’t sew a lick? Buy (at least they were able to then) a printed panel you cut out like a paper doll – already decorated with flocking. All you had to know was how to thread a piece of ribbon through the pre-printed slits that were already on it. This type was usually of an organdy-type material agreeable to accepting the glue which held on the flocking which decorated it. Easy and fun! Feeling a little vampy? Tie on one of the black hostess type aprons over your little black dress and high-heel pumps for your cocktail party, or that dinner for two you cooked up for that special person.
I particularly love the ones with colorful appliqués on them. New mother? You know the drill- one with lots of big, easy-to-find-with-your-eyes-obscured pockets. Oh, and by the way, that bib around baby’s neck – nothing more than a miniature apron to keep the peas from staining the cute little shirts or blouses all the family bought baby. No spray stain removers in the early days. They had to be made out of something boilable, bleachable or so dark even motor oil wouldn’t show. And then there was plastic ahh plastic.
Even has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Cash registers think so. Plastic changed the world almost overnight, and the affect it had on domestic items was nothing short of phenomenal. Now they could just wipe themselves and/or baby off with a damp rag. What a blessing! My collection contains several plastic aprons both vintage and contemporary, but the two actual vintage plastics I have are two of my greatest apron treasures. I remember when my mom got her first one and how excited she was. Good stuff when you are still doing laundry on the back porch with a ringer washing machine.
Black lace, tulle and organdy.
Appliqued hostess aprons.
Vintage plastic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
The 1920s -30s had women striving to be the best wives, housewives and mothers in the neighborhood, but when WWII came, many of them left the hearth to work out of the home, and some never went back in the old way; if they did, they were changed forever. They knew they could step up to the plate and be counted on when they needed to be, and they’ve never looked back. I have an apron pattern from that period, and the Rosie The Riveter look was, in today’s slang, “way cool”, but the most recognized period for aprons in the past generation or two has to be the postwar 1950s.
People sat down to dinner or went places together as a family in those days. They also invited their friends over for dinner or a back yard barbeque or entertained them for special occasions. Nevertheless, most people had to make their own entertainment.
Crochet and organdy aprons The major holidays were especially popular excuses for a woman to break out a seasonally correct or especially cute or beautiful apron while she played hostess, and most women aspired to be the Hostess with the Mostest, as the saying goes. This was a moment of pride for her and her family. She took her talent as a housewife as a reflection of who she was as a person, and she wanted to look good, cook good,and have everyone in the family act good Aprons from this era know no limits to their creativity in terms of the fabrics they were made of; trims that were applied to them and needlework techniques.
Get a few together and you will be amazed at all the talent there was out there. There was a lot of Mr/Mrs or His/Her stuff, none the least of which was the one-piece barbeque apron, complete with matching hot pads and mitts. Special care was taken to be sure the man’s was in no way effeminate. The profound words Bar-B-Que or BBQ were generally appliquéd or embroidered somewhere on his to insure the world knew he only wore an apron for barbequing purposes, at which time it was acceptable and not a threat to his masculinity.
After all, he had been told all his life that cooking and cleaning were women’s chores. Whether he actually brought the meat home to the family or not is questionable. But at least he was cooking it, right? Just as my husband and son do today, and sometimes it really is the meat they’ve brought home. In our neck of the woods, most likely a nice salmon – some I even catch myself! All Bibs Are Not Equal –Bib Aprons. The biggest and most obvious difference in aprons is whether they are a bib apron, which covers the chest as well as the front of the body; or a half apron, which covers the body from the waist to about the knees, and as I will show you, there were even what I call quarter aprons.
The latter barely covers the tummy area, and one of mine is only 14″ in depth. These were generally used by waitresses who mostly just needed a handy pocket to stash their order book and pen while they served someone, or were coordinated with the décor of the establishment which provided them, so you didn’t have to guess who those waitresses were. Hypothetically, the stomach area is supposedly one’s most vulnerable area (but we dribblers know better, don’t we?).
Blue voile print.
Most people recognize a bib apron as the kind with a cute little front over the bust which is attached at the waist to the bottom half. From there, there’s no holds barred. They were cut in cute shapes, trimmed in every conceivable way and fastened to the body in ways that, in some cases, took a rocket scientist to figure out. They are also some of the most beautiful and functional in existence.
Furthermore, if you think the ones of the twentieth century are fancy, check out the ones in the history books! They truly were as detailed as some of the most beautiful clothing, and therefore they were the clothing, for no one would be able to wear all that finery over something equally fine or bulky. I’m not a costume historian, but I can only assume that they put their efforts into the apron because of its versatility and adaptability which could be shortened, lengthened or recycled in many ways and fit a broader range of people, and that way they could have a simple, easier to care for, basic garment underneath it.
One Piece Aprons – Butchers, Tanks, Tunics and Tabbards. The simplest of all aprons to make would be the butcher- type apron which ties around the back of the neck and again at the waist, and is just one big piece of material with something around the neck and waist to hold it on. The barbeque apron is in this category. They usually have a patch pocket or two on the front but not always, particularly if one is industry oriented, and the wearer is working around machinery.
The fewer pockets, strings etc. the better – ever wonder why butchers wrap the strings of their aprons completely around their bodies and tie them in the back? The tools of the trade can be lethal, especially grinders, etc. These are the kind you see on chefs, butchers and kitchen help. Many of this type of apron are cranked out as marketing tools. Because they are flat, they can easily be printed with logos, pictures, funny sayings or whatever is needed.
You might get one of these at a convention, for example, because they are cheap to produce (more so, now, what with computer type setting etc.), expendable or would maybe be outdated the next time the new year rolls around. Directed toward a special interest group and used by the intended market, this type can be a barrel of laughs. I have seen some very creative ones. Observe the lifeguard apron from a famous California beach given to my skinny stepfather by his granddaughter many years ago. It came complete with three dimensional muscles and speedo swimsuit, both enhanced by quilting in all the appropriate places.
He’s been gone for 10 years now, but his legacy lives on, as you are able to see. This style goes from kitchen to outside to an industrial setting without a hitch ,just by changing the material from which they are made. When my farrier comes to trim our ponies’ feet, the first thing he does after getting out of his pickup truck is to grab his heavy leather apron and tie it around his waist (in his case a half apron). The better to keep those sharp horseshoe nails from ripping his body should an animal unexpectedly pull away. Also to protect him from the hot forge he uses.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say. Nothing has been found to take its place or improve the existing status quo, so the farrier’s apron and tools have not changed much for longer than we probably care to remember. Next in simplicity of construction is the tunic type apron. Most are just a rectangular piece of material with a hole through which to put your head, and ties on each side to keep it together (think serape), but for ease of finishing the neck opening, they are usually pieced at the shoulder.
A good one to start children on, especially when made to fit themselves. Some people refer to these as tabbard aprons. Sometimes I think what they are called depends on where you are from.. I have one pattern in my collection that calls them a shirt-tail apron. Tank, tunic, tabard. The name describes their shape.
GOING IN CIRCLES……. Circular-shaped aprons offer fullness without bulk or without having to do all of that gathering. They are cut in one piece and are an easy beginner project. If you can use a pair of scissors and sew one straight seam for a waist band extending out for ties, you can make one almost instantly. However; hemming all that curved edge is a whole “nuther” story. Clean-edged ones were usually bound in bias tape (see the beautiful three tiered nylon one in my collection) and if you didn’t want it to look funny (rumpled, scrunched, uneven, or with missed areas), you learned to use your machine attachments to make a rolled hem, or the bias attachment to encase the edge neatly inside bias tape.
Most people have never taken time to learn to use the attachments that come with their machines, but it is one of the best investments in time management you will ever make. They truly are terrific time savers. When properly done, however, these are some of the prettiest aprons made, and were very popular in the 1950s because their flat surface made it easy to apply all manner of decorations which were then particularly obvious to the eye.
A really serviceable variation is the one-piece wrap apron which conforms to the body because it is cut on the curve, and merely needs some sort of button or tie at the back of the neck to stay in place.The latter type is also a slam dunk for beginning sewers because there are no seams, and finishing the edges can be accomplished on a flat surface. The concept was the same regardless of size. Only the size of the curve increased.
Many children’s sun suits were not much more than an adapted version of this shape. They are still popular and start showing up in spring pattern catalogs for summer use.
Mint green eyelet apron.
Novelty butcher type apron complete with lifeguard.
Appliqued three-layered tunic apron.
Circular nylon apron.
Classic wrap based on a circle.
Semi-circle apron with its pattern.
A Pinney for Your Thoughts……… There are few people who are not familiar with the simple gathered half apron which covers one’s front and ties around the waist. As you can see by the photo, the manner in which one can be decorated is infinite and a source of great pride. Many people refer to this type of apron as a pinny apron. This term has generated no small amount of confusion. What is a pinny, anyway? I guess my mother was way off base when she told me it was because they used to cost a penney. As in money.
Where have I been anyway? To see if I could find out, I checked with three different dictionary sources and each one described the term as being short for a pinafore apron which, of course, a gathered half apron is not. In any case, they are amazing.
A button and bows pinney apron shwon with its pattern. Pattern was a freebie at J.C. Penney when fabric was purchased.
From the plainest of the plain, to the height of sophistication, they were appliquéd, embroidered, bound, ruffled, painted (anyone remember liquid embroidery?) and pieced in every way they could conceive of to use any scrap of fabric they had. Nothing was wasted. Got a yard or so of rickrack or ribbon? It may not be enough for an item of clothing, but it was enough to trim an apron! They were chopped apart in creative ways I still find amazing, and just when I think I’ve seen it all, up pops one with a new twist.
I want them all! A couple of pieces of material could be sewn in alternating wedges, gores, squares or strips in such ingenious ways it never occurred to us when looking at them that the designers and/or creators were actually being very sneaky – they were allowing us to make lemonade out of the lemons we had in our leftover fabric stash.( I still subscribe to the philosophy that he who dies with the most fabric wins, even after 52 years of sewing. Ditto for rubber stamps and grandkids.) They were also shrewd marketers – they knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that frugal little wives everywhere would go for it.
Rickrack, probably the most popular applied trim in history and eventually available in a half dozen widths, is still being used decades later. The only difference is the fiber content. The introduction of synthetic fibers was a godsend in that they no longer shriveled up after washing, and sometimes let us get away without ironing if the fabric was agreeable. The same for grosgrain ribbon which needed to be dampened and ironed to preshrink it in order to prevent enormous shrinkage which caused the fabric underneath to pucker.
When rickrack which incorporated metallic threads was introduced, women went crazy and used it on everything from clothing to craft items. Baptism by Fire – Ruffles………. If you had enough material, ruffles made any creation more feminine, but I was reminded of why women welcomed permanent press with open arms as I ironed my collection for photograph purposes. One commercially made apron had a ruffle that was 12.5 feet in length (I know I couldn’t resist measuring it), and that on just a half apron with one ruffle around the edge! They are actually little pleats made with one of the ruffling/pleating attachments, but the pleats are not over 1/8″ in width.
I thought I would never get to the end of it, and then I knew why women were so ready to accept fabrics that did not require so much effort to keep up.
Reds and ruffles for Valentine Day and Christmas.
Women had lots of work to do and unless they were ladies of leisure, just simply could not spare the time for the upkeep on anything but special occasion items that were not worn often, and although the machine attachments for making them made it easier to construct them, it didn’t help at all when it came time for laundry and ironing them.
As a matter of fact, in the process of primping my collection for photographs, I could tell right off I wouldn’t live long enough to do them all in the time frame I had without a little help from technology. I beat feet to Joann Fabrics with my monthly 40% off coupon to buy one of those cute little quilting irons I’d been wanting anyway for craft projects.
Worked like a charm for those hard-to-get-at places like trims, appliqués and the like, where my standard-sized iron did more harm than good. Our predecessors did not have that luxury. If you are making your own aprons instead of just collecting them, you can make short work of ruffling with the attachment for that. That one looks a little daunting, but the gathering foot is so simple it doesn’t seem like it could work. I cheat a little bit when making gathered ruffles with this attachment.
Instead of trying to calculate the exact measurement of the area you want to apply the gathers to, it’s easier to just add a few inches when I cut the fabric and just go for it full steam ahead. Then when you apply the ruffle to the apron (or whatever else.) just cut off the excess ruffle at the end. I’ve done this many times on costumes. Irreconcilable Differences……. One of the biggest problems I have encountered in handling my vintage apron collection is that created by the combination of incompatible materials. This happened for several reasons.
Some sewers simply did not know better and used whatever they thought would look good – usually a scrap of something they already had a piece of. On the other hand, the content and availability of suitable material has not always been so great as it is today, and there were far fewer synthetics and synthetic blends which women learned to love. For example I have one apron which is a synthetic with traditional-type satin ties.
At the time it was made, satin was not a fabric that took kindly to home laundering. If you had something made of satin, you made a point of having it cleaned or if you knew you couldn’t afford to do so, you avoided it, except for obvious things like bridal articles etc. Needless to say, the body of the apron survived quite well, but the satin strings began to shred apart even with gentle ironing. It was impossible to tell how old it was, and I should have had it cleaned.
Some materials such as linen require a relatively hot iron and quite a lot of moisture, but if pieced or trimmed with a fabric of more delicate content (which was often the case), it created a problem. Several of my Christmas aprons have cute Christmas prints on a full bodied fabric, but are combined with lightweight sheers for holiday effect and are not able to take the same temperature. These have to be ironed with care. They were seasonal items made for use during a short period of time and for a special occasion, and no one was worrying about it.
All that mattered at the moment of conception and construction was how they would look for that short period of time or perhaps even for a single occasion. Obviously it didn’t matter to the women who bought them either for they were sold by the thousands. It only mattered at laundry time, and the fact that there are so many holiday aprons around which are in nearly new condition, convinces me even more.
Christmas group including Lela’s 50-year old apron at left and a closeup below.
One similar item gave me an unexpected and welcome surprise, however. It is referred to as a tea apron by its former owner. As I pressed it I felt something in the pocket and when I removed it I found a note from the previous owner, signed and dated, telling where and when she had purchased the apron.
The note was dated 1995 but she indicated she had bought the apron in 1957 “at Green’s five and dime” in a nearby town, and that it was her first tea apron She had even signed the note! Documentation of the apron being 50 years old this year – a collector’s dream! Thank you Lela! I suppose it was a custom not adhered to by current generations, and is the counterpart to leaving the pennies in your loafers or a nickel in a purse you gave away.
Smock Aprons – We We Mademoiselle……… Smock-type aprons offered a great deal of protection and coverage, and were basically a roomy blouse that was open at either the front or back.. Women loved them for the protection they offered over their clothes. Many had a tie of some kind attached in a seam or at the side, which then went around the body and tied at the back of the waist and a button or tie at the back of the neck. They usually had a pocket or two. Many people refer to them alternately as cobbler aprons but I think of a cobbler aprons as one with lots of pockets across the fron, and full coverage over the front of the torso.
Often, the ones referred as cobbler aprons are really just smocks. This confusion is not our fault. Even the pattern designers were not consistent in which way they referred to them. Artists’ smocks usually buttoned down the front, were generous in their coverage and fullness and even had full length sleeves.
Black smock and gathered half apron. There were many cute patterns made for use by children while doing artwork and although I have patterns for several of them, I have never made any of them. My five grandchildren seem to think there is a direct relationship between the size of the mess we make and reaching our creative objectives, whether painting, rubber stamping, making cookies or any other creative craft we try together.
Somehow, being able to do whatever we want without guilt seems to be half of the fun for us so we just don’t worry about it. There are others who do though as represented by the total body covers in my collection. Which, I might add, have never, ever, been worn. They were just too constricting. Someone must buy them or I guess they wouldn’t be produced. It just wasn’t us! Women’s Lip..er.. Lib — Unisex Aprons………… In the sixties, when it was not cool to be domestic and women were burning their bras to assert their independence, a new style of apron emerged – the unisex apron.
It was shaped like the front half of a pair of pants, rather like a pair of cowboy chaps, which is precisely why they appealed to little old horse crazy me. They were attached to a standard waistband which tied at the back of the waist and another around the back of the knee. They were shown as barbeque aprons for him and her etc. McCall’s made one which became famous. I remember making a set for a wedding present for a newly wed couple, pretty much as shown on the cover of the pattern. His in plain, brushed blue denim, Hers made feminine in white eyelet with ruffles around them.
They were appropriate and adorable and a big hit. A shorter version ending above the hip and with pockets added could become a carpenter/painte- type apron, and separate patterns of that kind appeared subsequently.
The great unisex apron, this in chaps style. Why Collect………….. When it is all said and done, I know that, at least for me, the reason I continue to love and collect aprons is because they have so much to teach us, both technically and emotionally. When we look at our treasures, we are reminded of a person, place or activity. They are a tangible connection between the past and the present – a common denominator we can share with our predecessors and continue to pass on.
They should be some of the most revered textile items we have. Aprons are a historical item to be preserved. I have found no other medium which covers a broader section of the needle arts for a longer period of time, is international in scope, transcends language barriers and is as individual as the person who makes them. They are like fabric fossils which if analyzed can give many clues to their origin, period of time they existed in and materials available at the time – one of the few ways of dating them.
Their fabric content, design and embellishments reflect professions, textile trends, politics, holidays, age, needle arts, special interests and even the military. Worn by caregivers, they are symbols of care and relief; by homemakers, the knowledge that your needs are being met by someone who cares; by children, anticipation of a new learning experience or the fun of a favorite hobby; and by artists who will leave something that might, quite possibly, outlive them – in some cases for centuries.
My hope is that my words will generate enough enthusiasm for these special and unique items to cause you to snatch grandma’s apron out of the trash when you are “getting rid of this old stuff” for her. Ask her what she wore it for while she is still around for you to ask her. Then write it down and share it with your families. Life, as she knew it, will never be the same, so get it down while you still can.
As long as we respect the place they have had in history for future generations, as we would other historical items, we can continue to learn from those that went before. Make a new generation of apron lovers. Make a time capsule to be opened decades from now. Do something, anything, except relegate them to the trash can as something unloved and unused.
“Tie one on”and make a memory! About the Author I am a 62 year old, semi-retired professional, mother of one and grandmother of five. I live on a vintage farm in Kalama WA with my retired husband, Dave, our equally aged wire haired terrier, Lily, two mini horses and two mini mules – where every visit to grandma’s house is an adventure for the grandkids – just the way we like it. Apron lovers can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your love of aprons. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.