Aprons known for practicality, couture and service

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Almost every household and shop has an apron or two. Our home has 27, each of which speaks volumes about our family’s history.

The humble apron has been used for hundreds of years for one purpose or another. Most people associate aprons with cooking and cleaning; however, many of them have served a variety of purposes around the world for a long time.

Aprons were first used because they were easier to clean than dresses, which in the past were worn a number of days before they were washed.

Aprons come in a variety of shapes and uses. Waist aprons, which are often small, decorative and stylish, have been popular for generations, yet they do not protect as well as bib aprons that cover clothing above and below the waist. Bib aprons are used in homes, restaurants, factories and shops or wherever there is a need to protect clothing from food stains, chemicals, flying sparks or other dangers.

People my age remember that our female relatives wore aprons daily and used them until they wore them out. Most aprons that I remember were sewn at home from calico, plaid or some other fabric and trimmed with rickrack, eyelet or ruffles and had deep, practical pockets. Sometimes they were made from fabric scraps or feed sacks or some other material at hand.

We also remember seeing women wearing bib aprons that did not have a loop to go around the neck but were held in place by two large safety pins close to the neckline to hold the apron in place.

Some women wore wrap-around aprons that protected the front and back of the dress. This style required more fabric and was not as common as waist or bib aprons.

In earlier days, aprons might be washed, starched, dried on the clothesline, sprinkled, ironed and worn for several days before they needed to be washed again. Women took their aprons seriously and used them regularly.

My family has an apron tradition: Grandmothers make aprons for their granddaughters and give them as birthday or Christmas gifts, all of them of calico, checked or striped fabric, some of them wrap-around and others bib or waist aprons. I still treasure five aprons handmade by my grandmother.

My mother gave her four granddaughters their first apron, a cute little child’s waist apron for Christmas one year. My daughter still has hers, and I am sure the other three do as well.

My granddaughters got little waist aprons as well from me at Christmas; one was chartreuse with little periwinkle polka dots, while the other was periwinkle with little chartreuse polka dots. When I visit in their home, the girls have their aprons hanging on a hook in the kitchen pantry. The little aprons never cease to warm my heart.

Other than aprons made by my grandmother, we have several from my mother-in-law’s collection, several that were gifts and several that just showed up at our house by one means or another. Some of them were confiscated from a local school that wanted to weed out old aprons from the home economics room. I also have my Christmas apron, you know, the one that I often wear at our backyard Fourth of July cookout or our Labor Day party.

We all love those black bistro aprons that servers wear in restaurants. I love to see the aprons flapping around the servers’ legs as they maneuver themselves around tables, serving guests with skill and style.

How about all those apron messages that are sometimes wise, other times sassy or just plain funny? I like the ones that say, “Dude with the Food” or “Real Men Wear Aprons” or “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.”

And I like Barbara Kingsolver’s message that I recently saw on an apron: “Cooking is 80 percent confidence, a skill best acquired starting from when the apron strings wrapped around you twice.”

I cannot forget an apron that I made for my husband to wear in his wood shop.

The practical bib apron made from heavy denim is now properly stained with varnish and glue and has sawdust in the pockets and seams, all of which shout out evidence of its years of use.

One of my favorite aprons is the one my husband bought in the theater lobby when we saw “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway. When I wear this one, I can briefly imagine being in the theater seat, enjoying the show as the cast sings “Take a Chance on Me” or “Dancing Queen” or “Mamma Mia!” I might even dance a little between intervals of stirring the spaghetti and setting the table.

There are no exact rules for aprons. Aprons are all about tradition or bragging rights around the backyard barbecue or plain hard work. One thing that aprons have in common is that they represent creating something or performing a service for someone else.

For those of us who wear aprons at home or in shops, factories or restaurants, we can feel joined each to each by love of work and service to others.

One of these days I will get around to making an apron from that piece of lightweight pillow ticking that I have kept in a closet for 10 years. It will be an undecorated bib apron, and I will probably get ketchup on it the first time I wear it.

Jon Foreman leaves us with this apron thought: “If you approach the world with the apron of a servant, then you are allowed to go places that you can’t go if you approach it with the crown of a king.”

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.