Sunday, January 11, 2015

Useful Yet Elegant: Black Silk Aprons, c.1770

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Isabella reporting,

Aprons were an important feature of European dress for women in the 18th c. While sturdy linen or cotton aprons obviously served to protect the petticoat for women working at home or at a trade, aprons that were made of sheer muslin and embellished with embroidery also were worn as a pure fashion statement.

While I was visiting Colonial Williamsburg last month, our friends in the Margaret Hunter millinery shop were at work embroidering a gentleman's waistcoat. While all the mantua-makers are adept (very!) at fine embroidery as well as dressmaking, it took this project to make them realize a serious gap in their own wardrobes. As anyone who embroiders knows, the process involves many tiny clipped threads of silk floss that often end up stuck to the embroider's clothing - not a desirable look regardless of the century.

But 18th c. needleworkers had a remedy for this. They protected their clothes with wide aprons made of black silk. These were tied around the waist in a knot or bow at the back, with the front piece pinned in place to the bodice beneath - giving the aprons the name pinners. The silk was sufficiently slippery to keep those pesky threads from sticking, and to be easily brushed clean at the end of the day. In addition, the black silk provided a high-contrast background that was easy on the eyes for embroidery, particularly whitework. It's likely that seamstresses in the dressmaking trades also wore such aprons for the same reasons.

Seamstress Nicole Rudolph, left, models her new apron - so new that the pockets were still pinned in place when I took this picture. While she and the other women in the shop are interpreting professional needleworkers, the practical black silk pinner apron was also adopted by ladies employed in recreational needlework. In the painting, right, the Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria is spinning thread on a miniature wheel on her lap, and along with her diamonds and pearls, she's wearing a black silk apron.

Above: Photograph copyright Susan Holloway Scott, 2014.
Below: Self-portrait of the Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria (1742-1798), daughter of Franz I and Maria Theresa, and spouse of Albert, Prince of Saxony, c. 1765.


lahbluebonnet said...

Oh, I love this! I think a black silk apron is on my sewing list!

Vintage Maison said...

Thank you for solving a puzzle for me - I do occasionally see black silk aprons for sale, and wondered what the significance was - I was sure that the black was not for mourning, and now, I know!

Jenny Woolf said...

So much more practical than white.

Scrapiana said...

Oh, how wonderful! I'd happily wear a pinner like that. Perhaps it should be revived?

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

What caught my eye was the banyan hanging in the background. When I was active in Brit-side reenacting 15 years ago, I had a banyan from the identical fabric, Waverly Sturbridge Stiches, now discontinued and very hard to find. The differences were that I had mine fully lined with yellow silk and fastened with hooks and eyes. At s battle at Gunston Hall, 1998 I think, someone took extensive photos of me wearing it in camp on Sunday morning with a white wig. Then a couple of years later, along came The Patriot with a scene in which Tom Wilkinson as Cornwallis is wearing an almost identical banyan in the comfort of his headquarters.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

G.Thomas Fitzpatrick - I've written about that banyan on the wall before - here's the link with more pictures:

Can't beat a good banyan for comfort and dash!

Anne-Marie Burgon said...

That's a Self-portrait (of the Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria)? AND was it common for women to spin their own embroidery silk as well as paint?

Love this post!

Anonymous said...

How fascinating - and what a great idea even for modern stitchers to use.

Donna said...

I had heard that English/American women didn't wear pinner aprons in the 1770's.
Is that not true or is this different because it is "work wear"?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Donna, They're wearing them, but I suspect there aren't as many images because pinners were, as you say, work wear. Here's a watercolor sketch by Paul Sandby that shows his sister-in-law wearing a black (or at least dark) pinner:

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anne-Marie ~ Everywhere on the internet that I see that portrait it's listed as a self-portrait. I wish I could find the collection/museum that owns it to know for sure!

As for ladies spinning - yes, grand ladies did all kinds of handwork, including embroidery, knitting, netting, knotting, and spinning. Handwork showed industry, and was considered an attractive way to sit in a drawing room, too - you have admit that miniature spinning wheel is incredibly appealing. Most importantly, needlework was a kind of artistic self-expression, and many ladies created pieces at a very high level of skill.

Hallie Larkin said...

Is there other documentation besides the Archduchess and Mrs Sandby for use of the black apron by milliners or professional embroiders? Blacks silk aprons are frequently mentioned in advertisements, but I have always interpreted those ads as aprons like this.

Jess Miler said...

Thank you! This explains all those references to Jo March's black silk apron. It was work wear. I'm now thinking about one or two for me.

sally said...

love your sit and all so interesting i am working on an art project at present and am focusing my research on 18th century maids.
I am intrigued as to how the pinner bit was attached? with pins as we know them or was there a special type?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sally, they're just regular straight pins. See my earlier post about 18th c. pins here:

Good luck with your art project!

Diana Stevens said...

What is the exact name of the silk fabric used for the apron?
How heavy? satin? charmeuse?

I would like to recreat one, as I portray a spinner at special history events..

Thank you.
Diana Stevens, historical spinner, reenactor.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Diana, I remember it as being fairly light and crisp, more a taffeta than a charmeuse. But to be certain, I'd contact the mantua-makers themselves - they're easily reached via their Facebook page:

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