A while ago I did a blogpost on aprons for men, as many working men wore aprons, but they are more commonly associated with women. This post is on women’s aprons, and aprons were worn by women of all ages, and all social classes. In his 1688 Annual Consumption of Apparell Gregory King indicated that he believed over three million aprons, and the far less common night rail, were being produced every year, with a total value of £450,000. (1) The database I have created contains over four hundred mentions of aprons in wills, probate inventories, household accounts, etc. They range in date from 1604 to 1704.
|Figure 1: Bridget Holmes in 1686, by John Riley. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II|
Aprons for children
Aprons were worn by both boys and girls while they were toddlers, but after boys reached the age to be breeched they were worn only by girls. Probate accounts, made when parents had died and those in charge of the children had to account for any monies spent, often contain reference to aprons being provided. In 1610 five shillings is laid out for cloth to provide Marie Chippinhurst with “apernes and quoifes.” (2 p. 73) In the middle of the century in Cheshire the daughters of Edward Harpur are provided with many aprons over a number of years, a typical entry being “for 3 yards and 3 quarters linnen thrid and for tape for 4 aprons for 4 daughters 7s 5d.” (3 pp. 266-98) When girls reached an age to enter into an apprenticeship, then aprons might be among the garments provided for them. In 1632 the parish of St Sepulchre in London provided for a parish girl entering an apprenticeship, “two green aprons and two blew aprons 7s 6d.” and other clothes (4 p. 23)
Girls attending charity schools were also provided with aprons. At the original “blue coat” school, Christ’s Hospital, the girls were provided with aprons from its foundation in 1552. By 1717 the Governors were ordering “a sufficient supply of green say to be made into aprons for the use of the Maiden children at Hertford.” (5 p. 102)
Aprons for women of the common sort
Like the girl entering an apprenticeship in London, aprons could be provided by the overseers of the poor. In 1692, among the items provided for Widow Toddsworth, was blue linen for aprons. (6 p. 55) While poorer people tend not to have probate inventories or wills, there are some examples. In Cheshire in 1604, spinster Anne Walmeslie, whose goods at her death totalled only 12s 6d, owned “one ould apperan 6d.” (7)
Slightly further up the social scale, women who were in service owned aprons. In 1620 Elenor Ell, who is described as a maidservant, has both a green and a white apron (8 p. 3), and in 1618 Anne Large, servant to a shoemaker, owns three aprons. (9 p. 29)
Most women are described in their probates as either as a widow or a singlewoman, so it is difficult to assess their status, though the value of their estate may give an indication. Sometimes it is possible to work out if a woman is the widow of a tradesman, husbandman or yeoman. In 1628 Christian Debbedge, the wife of a yeoman left her sister a white apron in her will. (10 pp. 103-4) In 1638 the widow Jane Barnard had an estate valued at just over £22, her inventory includes five aprons together worth 10s. (11 p. 80)
Aprons as a fashion item for the gentry and nobility
Once the level of the gentry and nobility is reached aprons are often more of a fashion item, than of practical use. The fact that these aprons were not a protective garment is shown when in 1596 Stephen Glosson wrote of aprons as, “so finely fringed,…so quaintlie cut, so richlie wrought: Were they in work to save their cotes, They need not cost so many groates.” (12 p. 10) In 1622 the household accounts of the Howards of Naworth Castle records the sum of eight shillings being spent on a single apron for Mrs Elizabeth. (13) These upmarket aprons could be decorated with embroidery or lace; in 1630 Dame Elizabeth Freville left two laced aprons in her will (14) and in 1676 the widow Ann Searle left “an apron with two seaming laces.” (15) A few of these costly aprons survive, mainly because of the lace, the one shown in figure 2 is in the Metropolitan Museum New York and is early seventeenth century Italian.
|Figure 2: Early 17th century Italian apron. Met. Museum, New York. Public Domain.|
Number of aprons owned
Most women appear to have had at least one or two aprons. Sometimes the difference between working aprons and aprons worn for show is indicated. In her 1686 will Elizabeth Fry leaves “one Holland apron, two work hankesteres my work days’ aprons and all my head linen,” from which it is assumed that the holland apron was kept for best. (16) In 1613 Alice Claxton leaves her daughter her “best smocke and apron.” (17 p. 130)
In 1617 Elizabeth Blakeborne owned no less than nine aprons, three of which were declared to be old, one of flaxen cloth and one black. (18 p. 46) In 1662 Judah Lea, a widow whose estate is valued at only £7 0s 8d, owns two linen and one green apron. (19 p. 104) At the other end of the social scale Sarah Kitchen, with an estate valued in 1672 at over £460 has, like Elizabeth Blakeborne, nine aprons. (20 p. 64)
The bulk of aprons were without bibs, and fell from the waist, though for small children there was a bib that may, or may not, have been attached to the apron. Aprons are sometimes depicted as an ungathered, rectangular piece of cloth, and sometimes as gathered at the waist. They are tied with apron strings; the Hertford account in 1641 has a payment “for tape to make the ladies apron strings.” (21 p. 23) The strings could be tied at the back or, as can be seen in Laroon’s 1688 ballad seller (fig.3), at the front.
|Figure 3: Marcellus Laroon. Ballad Seller, 1688 Cries of London|
A further point about Laroon’s ballad seller, is that her apron has pockets, as do several others in Laroon’s Cries of London. An early, c.1610-20, set of Cries of London in the Pepys Collection at Magdalene College, Cambridge, depicts two out of the six women wearing aprons, whose aprons may have pockets, though a set from c.1650 in the British Museum shows vendors aprons without pockets, and with a purse being worn underneath.
Aprons could be worn just loose, or with one corner tucked up as in the dummy board in the Victoria and Albert Museum, (figure 4) Tucking an apron up in this fashion prevents the wearer stepping onto the bottom of it when they stoop, the famous 1686 portrait of Bridget Holmes in the Royal Collection also shows this way of wearing an apron.(fig.1) On occasion both corners of the apron could be tucked up to make one large pocket out of the apron, as in Laroon’s London Gazette seller.
|Figure 4: Dummy board c.1630. Victoria and Albert Museum|
Of the over four hundred aprons in the database only just over one hundred indicate what fabric they are made from. The distribution is: 55% linens, canvas and, at the end of the century, cottons; 30% wool based fabrics, 8% silks and 7% the mixed fabric linsey woolsey.
The linens range from the coarsest of cloths to the finest. Two are described as harden, as Markham explains, “That which comes from the flaxe being a little towed again in a paire of wool cards, will make a course harding.” (22 p. 97) Thirteen percent of the aprons are described simply as linen, with 25% of all the aprons being of the usually finer quality holland, although five are specified as coarse holland, and one is fine lawn. Holland comes in many qualities, and Spufford found that in the Stuart period its prices ranged from 15d to 89d per yard. (23) In 1650 calico appears in the Harpur accounts, “for 2 yards of calico to make Anna and Sarah two aprons 2s 8d.” (3) By 1704 muslin is being used, as Ann Taylor has no less than five muslin aprons listed in her inventory, (24 pp. 50-2), they were also being sold ready made by salesmen; in 1717 Edward Sackley of Kent has 2 muslin aprons in stock at 6 shillings each. (25 p. 221)
Of the wool based fabrics the most common used for aprons was say, with 21% of all the aprons being say, which is a light weight twilled woollen fabric. Five aprons were described just as woollen, two were serge, one stuff and one worsted.
The silk aprons comprise three silk and five taffeta. The owners of these were not necessarily gentry. In 1624 a yeoman left to the wife of a friend, his late wife’s “ best hat and silk apron with a silk girdle.” (26 p. 387) In 1630 a Hampshire clothier had in his inventory “one old riding hood, a taffeta apron and a black box to carry writing in, 3s.” (27)
Linsey woolsey appears in the database both for finished aprons, four being left in Suffolk wills. (28 pp. 119, 129), and as fabric, Rose Parker, the widow of a Stratford-upon-Avon butcher, leaving “one peece of linsey for an apron” (29 pp. 40-1) Linsey Woolsey as the name implies is a mixture of linen and wool. (30)
Only 69 aprons specify colour, 25 are white, 29 are green, 8 blue, 6 black and 1 murrey. None of the 25 white aprons give a fabric, though there are a further 45 linen, holland or muslin aprons which have no colour given, but were presumably the natural cloth, either bleached or unbleached. Of the 29 green aprons six are of say and one of serge, but the others don’t give a fabric.(fig. 5) Two of the blue aprons are of calico, and one of linsey woolsey. The murrey apron was made of serge; murrey was the colour of mulberries, a dark red or purple-red colour. (31)
|Figure 5: Woman in a green apron. Adam Willaerts. Detail from Ships off a Rocky Coast, 1621. Rijksmuseum|
As mentioned before aprons belonging to the gentry and nobility, and those aspiring to that level, might be decorated with cutwork embroidery or lace. In 1676 the widow Ann Searle leaves “an apron with two seaming laces.” (15) The Victoria and Albert Museum has a surviving apron covered in white cutwork embroidery. By the end of the Stuart period whitework embroidery on fine lawn or muslin, was becoming fashionable, as with a survival in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, which is helpfully embroidered Ann Knapp, April 1713.
King’s valuation of aprons over a year, assuming three million were produced, gives an average of 3s per apron. (1) The values given for aprons in my database range from 3d to an extreme outlier of £3 10s paid by James Master in 1673 “for a lace't apron for my wife.” (32) At that price the lace must have been considerable as the next highest amount paid was the 8 shillings already mentioned in the Naworth Castle accounts. The James Master apron may have been almost entirely of lace as with a survival from period 1690-1710 in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In the early years of the century there are many aprons appraised at about 6d each, but by the end of the century few are appraised individually. Aprons seem to have taken on yard of fabric to make, and prices are sometimes given for the fabric. In 1665 the chapman Oliver Jones has in his stock, “five yards of stuff for to make aprons with at ninepence the yard” (25 pp. 161-2) In 1622 the probate accounts of Richard Smith, shepherd, have “for cloth to make Margaret Smith two aprons, 11d.” (2 p. 114) To the cost of the cloth itself must be added several other costs, for example apron strings and if made outside the house the cost of making. The Harpur accounts have several mentions of aprons: in 1653 “for cloath pro 2 aprons making and stringinge pro Debora 1s 4d,” in 1652 tuppence was laid out “for a pair of apron strings” (3 pp. 266-98)
Aprons were owned by most women at all social levels from their childhood to old age. They were available at a wide range of prices. Mostly, but not exclusively, they were white, undyed or green, and of linen or wool cloth, with a few of silk among the upper classes.
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