Volume VII, No. 3, Spring 1980



by Patsy Watts and Vickie Massey

People often say that clothes don't make the man, but a few generations ago one particular item of clothing, the apron, certainly seemed to lend to the making of a woman. Mother hardly seemed the same without an apron tied over her dress. She put it on as she dressed in the morning and didn't take it off until she was ready to retire for the night. There was probably no other article of clothing that she owned which was so versatile as her apron; not only did it serve as a cover to protect her dress, but it was also useful in many, many other ways.

In earlier days, no one would have hardly recognized grandmother without her apron. Ruth Stith ,

Gilley Summers,

and Sarah Weaver. (Old photos courtesy Kirk Pearce)


If she happened to be standing outside on a chilly day, she might pull her apron up and wrap it around her bare arms to keep them warm, or she might pull a young child close to her and wrap her apron around the child's shoulders.

When company came, the young children clutched mother's apron and hid behind her skirt for security. Mother used her apron to wipe tears from little cheeks and moistened it with spit to wipe the dirt off of children's faces.

She also often used the apron like a basket. When she went to the garden, out to the orchard or down to the cellar, she carried things to the kitchen in her apron. She carried in kindling to start the fire, and she took clothes pins out to the line to hang out the washing. When she went to the hen house, she might carry a few ears of corn out in her apron and carry the gathered eggs back in. If she happened to find an old hen that had hid out her nest and hatched some chicks, she would gather the chicks up in her apron, taking them and the old hen to the chicken house, or if it began to rain, she would run outside, gather the baby ducklings in her apron and take them to the coop.

But Mother wasn't the only one to wear an apron. In past years almost every woman or girl wore an apron of some sort over her dress. Most women owned at least two aprons, but some owned many aprons made in different styles and of different materials. Though there were many uses for these aprons, most served as. a protection for the long dresses that the women wore.

Ray O'Dell explained what she knew of the apron's use. "Most everyone who wore a linsey dress wore an apron. A linsey dress is a woolen one that you weave. It was harder to clean, and it was kinda rough on your hands. It wasn't like a fine woolen piece now. You wore an apron over them, but you couldn't wear a wool dress in the summertime. You had to have a cotton dress--you would have burnt up with that wool on. But you would still wear an apron. The apron would come way down--they didn't have no little aprons. The apron had to cover your dress."

Because many families lacked money, they were unable to afford very many changes of clothing. Some families were so large that even if money wasn't a problem, the mother would scarcely have time to make a lot of clothes for each child as well as do the washing and all of her other chores. Ray joked, "Can you imagine wearing the same dress for a week? When you take it to a tub and wash it on a board, you can. My girls have said to me, 'Well, Mother, didn't you get to smelling before the week was over?' Yes, I guess we did. In our family there were nine of us beside a hired man--that was ten, and if we stripped everyone and washed on the board every day, we'd have two or three women washing all the time. We just couldn't do those things. Everybody lived the same way, and if we smelled anybody, it was likely we were smelling ourselves!"

There were many different kinds of aprons, ranging from very simple patterns that covered only the front of the skirt to more complicated ones that covered practically the entire dress. There were also countless variations that could be made in individual patterns. However, almost all aprons had pockets and were made flat so that they would be easier to iron.

Probably the simpliest apron that was commonly made was the band apron. A woman would gather about two yards of material and sew on a waist band. The length of the apron would vary depending on the amount of material and how much of the dress the woman wanted to cover. She would then make the ties by cutting the band long enough to wrap around the waist or by cutting strips of material of the appropriate length and sewing them onto the sides of the band.

Goldie Campbell (left) insisted that Bittersweet staff member Kyra Gibson wear an apron while learning to bake. (by Ruth Massey)


Bibbed aprons were also widely used. This apron covered more of the dress than the band apron by including a bib to protect the bodice of the dress as well as the skirt. Usually the entire apron was made of one piece of material. Some women simply pinned the bib to the bodice of their dresses, while others sewed on straps which went around the neck.

Another apron similar to the bibbed apron was the coverall apron which was large enough to cover front and back bodices of the dress as well as wrap entirely around the skirt. This apron was seldom made of a single piece of fabric.

The pinafore which girls wore was a kind of a combination of the band, bibbed and the coverall apron. The pinafore was made by sewing a bib onto the band of a band apron which completely covered the back as well as the front of the dress. Straps were sewn over the shoulders, crossed in the back and buttoned to the waist band, or a back bodice was sewn on similar to the front bib. This back bib buttoned up the back with smaller straps attaching the two bibs. Ruffles were usually sewn to the straps and bib to make the pinafore fancier.

Young girls often wore white pinafores instead of aprons over their school dresses. There was also a type of cover-up apron made almost the same as a girl's dress with sleeves but no waist band.

"A lot of times I had two dresses I wore to school," Ray said. "Most everybody had a change, but I know there were some children that went to our school that didn't have but one dress. Their mother washed it at night if they got it too dirty. People didn't have a lot of clothes like they do today."

Ida Waterman also remembered. "I know one little girl who went to school for a whole term, three months, wearing the same little brown printed dress that whole term. And she went to school clean every day."

Sylvia Gunter's bib apron protects her dress around the wood cook stove. (by Stephen Hough)

The types of materials used to make aprons varied, but gingham or calico were most commonly used. Once in a while aprons were made to match dresses, but usually they were just made out of scraps of material too small to make a dress. Ray explained. "You could buy material at a local store if you wanted to, or you could come into town. Most all of the country stores kept materials. Calico was sold for three to five cents a yard, and checked gingham was six or eight cents a yard. It went higher, but that wasn't used for aprons. They had what they called pound calico. I don't remember how much it cost a pound. It was remnants or small pieces sent to the store. Maybe a whole pound would be alike, or maybe you'd get a pound that wouldn't have a piece in it over a yard or a half yard with just one of a kind in it. People would buy it when they could get it. We laughed about the man at the store, when we asked him if he had some pound calico he said, 'No, I don't get it. I just can't keep it.

"This material wasn't necessarily color fast. It would fade maybe as you washed it. At one time things were soaked in salt water to set the color. You had to be careful not to get your water too salty, though, not a brine. You put salt in and soaked your material before you ever washed it. I'd say you put in as much salt as a good handful to a gallon of water and then just washed it on the board after that."


Wearing her coverall apron, Ida Waterman remembered the times she has had. (by Tracy Waterman )

A few women took time to do elaborate handwork on their everyday aprons, but they often made fancy aprons to wear to church or other social events. Ray remembered, "I never did wear an apron to church, but the generations older than me did. Some people hemstitched their aprons some." Other ways women fancied their aprons were sewing on lace or rick-rack, embroiderying, or making ruffled, crocheted or tatted edges.

The type of material used was also a factor in whether the apron had a utilitarian or ornamental use. The black silk apron was a familiar dress-up apron in many families. It was one of the nicest aprons a woman could own. Ray said, "I remember when my mother went to church she wore a long white apron. But some people had black silk aprons. I've seen them. They were something nice. They wore them when they went 'nice' places, I guess you'd say."

Ida told an amusing story about a black silk apron. "This is what my folks told us when we was little. They told a story about some people who were going off and leaving their children alone. The parents said before they left, 'Now don't tie the black silk apron on the dog.' After their folks got gone, they got the dog and tied the silk apron on it and it chased out through the woods. You can imagine what the apron looked like when the dog got back! Those kids never would have thought of tying the black silk apron to the dog if their parents hadn't told them not to."

In the 1920's and 1930's women began raising chickens for profit and, consequently, buying commercial feed. At the same time, to encourage the sale of their feed, feed companies began putting chicken mash and pellets in cotton muslin bags. Women utilized the sacks that the feed came in in countless ways, one of which was making aprons, for a sack which was a little over a square yard of material would be about the right amount to make an apron. However, up until around the 1940's, most of these feed sacks were white and had to be dyed if a colorful cloth was desired. During the second World War, the need for cotton to make soldiers' uniforms created a shortage of store-bought material, making the feed sacks even more appreciated as a useful alternate fabric. Manufacturers began making feed sacks of brightly printed and attractively designed materials, which women used for aprons, clothing, towels and the like.

The decline of the feed sack era in the 1960's coincided with the decline in the apron's use. New inventions and industrialization not only created a better economy, but also provided people with more clothing. Wash and wear clothing made caring for clothes easier; instead of scrubbing on a washboard, women were able to toss their dirty laundry in a washing machine. Easier to care for fabrics that required no ironing also contributed to the greater ease in caring for clothing so that dresses were as easy to launder as aprons once were.

The increased movement today toward women's rights has also decreased the apron's popularity. Many young women regarded the apron as a symbol of the woman's place in the home. Today the old chiche, "tied to mother's apron strings," is no longer as applicable as it once was because most mothers have stopped wearing aprons over their dresses. In fact, many mothers have stopped wearing dresses!



To use the patterns on this page, first mark off two inch squares on newspaper or some large pieces of paper so it resembles graph paper. One square of this pattern will equal two inches of actual size. Enlarge the pattern pieces by following the same curves and lines in the two inch squares as in these small squares.



Cut a yard square of material for the skirt, and cut a waistband six by twenty inches (length and width optional). Hem three sides of the skirt and gather the top edge to fit the band. Turn under one edge of the band 5/8 inch and sew 1/4 inch from the fold onto the right side of the gathered edge of the skirt. Turn under the other edge of the band 5/8 inch, fold band over and sew onto the wrong side of the skirt. Cut ties the desired length and width, hem and sew onto the ends of the waistband. Add pocket as desired.


Hem all edges 5/8 inch or desired width. For the ties, cut two pieces of material approximately three inches wide and long enough to reach around the waist and tie. Hem edges of ties and sew onto the sides of the apron directly under the bib at the +. You can also sew ties or a band to reach around the neck onto the bib.

Front and back of a girl's pinafore

The hemstitching adds a touch of elegance to Mary Moore's checked gingham band apron. (Staff photo)


Sew one side (B) to each side seam of the front (A), matching the single notch. Join back (C) to front(A) at each shoulder seam joining double notches.

Sew each section of the back (C) to sides (B) at waist, joining triple notches. Hem all raw edges. Fasten with buttons or snaps at the back.


Sew one back section (B) of skirt onto each edge of the front (A), matching notches. Turn under 5/8 inch hem down each center back piece. Gather the waistline. Turn notched edges of waistband (C) under 5/8 inch and sew to the gathered waistline of the skirt. Fold band over, fold under the other edge and sew to the wrong side of the skirt. Stitch ends of waistband closed and overlap. Buttons or eyelets can be fastened to this overlap. Sew suspenders to bib at shoulder seams. Sew ruffles (F) and (G) together and narrowly hem the rounded edges. Gather the straight edge of the ruffle and sew to bib and suspenders. Sew bib to the center front of the waistband. Cross suspenders in the back and button or snap them to waistband. The raw edges of the bib and suspenders may be hemmed or faced as desired.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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