28 April 2017

HSM 2017 #4: A very wide apron

Maid plucking a bird
(Pehr Hilleström, circa 1776)
A while back, I found a piece of vintage linen with nice selvages at the local thrift shop, and thought it would make a good 1770s working apron. I wanted an apron that a kitchen maid or wife in a lower middle class household might wear while doing chores.  She would likely have sewn it herself, rather than paying a seamstress.

Unfortunately, 18th century Swedish body linens were rarely preserved for posterity. As far as I know, there are a few shirts and some royal baby clothes, but no women's shifts or linen aprons. One of the reasons for this is that the paper mills used linen rags as their raw material, and from 1738 and on, a law required each Stockholm household to deliver a certain quantity of linen rags to the paper mill—otherwise they would be fined. This may have improved the inflow of rags to paper mills in the 18th century, but it doesn't exactly benefit today's historical dressmakers. So we have to turn to other sources of inspiration instead.

Aprons in genre scenes

The main source for images of Swedish women in everyday clothing in the last quarter of the 18th century, is  Pehr Hilleström's paintings. Looking at kitchen maids' aprons in his 1770s paintings, I learned that some had bibs and others didn't, and I couldn't spot any aprons with pockets.

Showing the purchases from market
(Pehr Hilleström, circa 1775)
The aprons must be fairly wide, as they're often artistically draped up on one side (maybe to facilitate wiping one's hands on the apron?).

Some aprons are clearly pleated to the waistband, others either have really small pleats or are gathered (hard to tell). His later paintings have gathers, so maybe pleated aprons were going out of fashion at this time.

When waistbands and apron strings are visible, both are the same width (my estimate is around 1 cm or a little more, say 3/8" to 1/2").

The broken dish
(Pehr Hilleström, circa 1776)
I was mostly inspired by the painting shown in color above, but I also looked at other Hilleström paintings showing wide aprons, like these two.

(Photos from Gerda Cederblom's 1927 book "Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare 1"now in the public domain, but many of the illustrations are b/w.)

Aprons in L'art de la lingerie

In his 1771 book (online at the Gallica digital library), de Garsault describes two women's aprons - a toilet apron and a lady's maid's apron (page 13 and 18). I've used Google Translate to make sense of the French text. 

The toilet apron's width isn't specified exactly ("more than one fabric width, but less than two"), but the maid's apron is made by joining two lengths of 3/4 aune wide linen (approximately 90 cm or 1 yd, for a total width of 180 cm or 2 yds). Both aprons are cut 7/8 aune long (105 cm or 1 yd 4"). The maid's apron has a bib (and a pocket), the toilet apron doesn't. Both are pleated to the waistband, and for the toilet apron it says how to do it - after hemming the bottom and sides, the entire top edge is pleated in large pleats of about 1 pouce (2.7 cm or 1 1/16"), and I think he says that you whip stitch the upper edge afterwards. The waistband is made from ribbon, 1 pouce wide. Backstitch it in place, right sides together, then fold it over the top edge and sew it to the wrong side with hemming stitches. He doesn't say whether it forms the ties too.

Cutting and sewing

A woman who sewed and mended her family's linens, would probably want to take her time stitching to ensure that the garments would hold up in the wash for a long time without needing mending. Close-ups of an extant linen shirt (Swedish admiral Claes Bjelkenstierna's, from 1659 - photos in Sörmlandsbygden 1978-1979) show neat, small stitches. I ended up using about 5 stitches/cm (12 stitches/inch). 

Joining two widths of linen sounded good, as there would've been no waste; I cut mine about 80 cm (32") wide, which is a period-appropriate width. Using 18th century Swedish measurements, I chose to cut them each 1.5 aln (about 90 cm or 1 yd) long, to be used over a walking-length petticoat.

I overcast the selvedges to join them, and stitched 6 mm (1/4") hems on bottom and sides.

When pleating the top, I found that the linen was slightly damaged near the center front, and had to mend it as I didn't want to shorten the apron. I decided to do pleats right up to center front, so I could off-set the center pleat slightly and hide the center front seam and mended area inside the first pleat. This made all the pleats on that side of the apron marginally deeper.

Adding the waistband, made from two widths of ribbon
For the waistband, I didn't have wide enough linen tape, so I used 13 mm (1/2") tape instead. I cut the waistband and ties in one piece, and widened the waistband section by overcasting a shorter piece of the same tape to it (like when I joined two selvedges in the center front seam). Then I followed Garsault's description for the waistband. I chose to skip the bib, as I wanted a plain-looking apron.

Second thoughts

With the apron well under way, I recalled that there are women wearing aprons in some Stockholm views by Johan Sevenbom, painted in the 1760s and 1770s. Checking them out, I found that their aprons don't look nearly as wide as the ones on Hilleström's maids. :-( It struck me that Hilleström had studied in France under Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and maybe he was inspired by Chardin's 1740s paintings, where some of the maids have really wide aprons. Hmm...

When thinking about it, Hilleström's paintings of maids may very well be picturesque fantasies rather than credible depictions of the typical kitchen staff of his average customer. His maids are always pretty and their clothes clean, but what if his artistic license didn't stop thereperhaps their clothing was French-inspired, or unusually conservative, or the whole scene was set in an earlier decade? Social realism would be fine in a cheap, humorous, print - but if you buy a hand-painted original to hang in your drawing room, you probably want it to look pretty. So I don't know if I can trust Hilleström to give a true image of 1770s Swedish maids.

In retrospect I think I should've used just one length of fabric—that would've used only half as much fabric, required less sewing, and resulted in a more historically correct apron. Lesson learned: do all research before starting the project!

The completed, very wide, apron

The facts

The Challenge: #4 Circles, Squares & Rectangles.

My submission: A very wide apron.

Material: 1.8 m (2 yd) from a piece of vintage thrifted linen with nice selvedges. It has 14x14 threads/cm and 225 g/m2 (35x35 threads/inch, 6.6 oz/yd2).

Pattern: My adaption of Garsault's 1771 instructions.

Year: Third quarter of the 18th century (and probably rather outdated towards the end of that period)

Notions: 13 mm wide linen tape, 50/2 and 80/2 linen thread (the thinner thread for joining the tape)

How historically accurate is it? The style, fiber and weave, notions and construction methods are documented to the period, and the fabric weight looks plausible. But I think having deep pleats right up to center front doesn't look good, and I think people would notice it as odd. So I give it 55 % on the Peacock scale.

Hours to complete: Several brief sewing sessions over the course of a few weeks added up to 7.5 hours (I'm a slow hand sewer).

First worn: Not yet.

Total cost: The linen and package of vintage linen tape were both thrift store finds (SEK75 and SEK5), and I used a little less than half of each, so SEK35 or $4 in all.

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