Thursday, 30 July 2009
My life in aprons
I have been reading The Apron Book by EllynAnne Geisel, an interesting book which is a mixture of memoir, social history and patterns for, as you might just have guessed, aprons, as well as a good few recipes thrown in for good measure, all intertwined with a gentle exploration of American female identity. Geisel connects the abandonment of the apron with the rise of feminism, and the apron's resurgence in popularity to a wish to reconnect with home and family.
So I began to think about my recent purchase of a wonderful apron from Mrs B, an apron with ‘Mia Casa’ embroidered upon the pocket: I have been pretty closely connected with home and family for pushing twenty years now, so I don’t think this is part of a sudden urge towards nestbuilding – more along the lines of having a fetching apron, unspattered by grease, in which to serve breakfast to our B&B guests.
And I rather like the handy pocket and tabs – just right to put my knitting in, or hang my scissors on, and imagine myself as a wonderfully industrious farmer’s wife, like the indomitable Mrs Poyser in Adam Bede, who has always been one of my great heroines.
But in spite of Geisel’s denial of an element of retro fashion and nostalgia in the current popularity of the apron, in my case there is definitely a more than a spot of nostalgia. The last time I tied on a waist apron, I was probably about nine years old.
The first thing that I remember sewing as a child is this pink gingham apron, and the fact that it is still in my possession, after more years than I care to reveal or remember, is a measure of how precious it has remained. I remember the Friday afternoons when I sat listening to The Water Babies being read to us, whilst clumsily and patiently herringboning and cross-stitching, as a small window of happiness in six years of misery at a school run on horribly old-fashioned and authoritarian lines.
Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby remains as a guiding example to me, and Mrs Donebyasyoudid with her nasty pebbles for sweets still haunts my unquiet moments. And disappointment as well as pleasure is contained in that apron – whoever was in charge of the fabric budget was rather mean: when completed the apron was really too small even for my tiny eight-year-old frame, and was thus quite impractical to wear. The next project was a spotted shantung blouse, a bizarre choice for primary school age children, and consequently this has disappeared, lost and unregretted, into the mists of time.
At around the same time my aunt brought me back this embroidered blue gingham apron from her travels to Mallorca – I remember being so enchanted with it that I rarely wore it. It seemed far to precious to risk making dirty, and already I was growing up and away from apronhood. When I took it out recently for Princess Bunchy to wear, it still retained its original starched stiffness.
Needlework lessons at secondary school were not a source of enjoyment for me – my clumsy fingers could not keep up with the pace of the older girls in the class, and it seemed me to be a relentless and uninspiring progress from one regimented project to another, with little imagination and creativity involved. The first task was a felt mouse – in a time when small stuffed animals were not associated with cuteness but with childishness, and I, for one, was ready to put aside childish things.
And then we embroidered a pocket with a culinary theme, ready to apply to our striped cookery apron, made with terrifying black treadle Singer sewing machines, ranged threateningly around the edges of the classroom. I would sit and prick my fingers, unpick what I had stitched, and take the whole mess home for my mother to complete. The last straw was a sleeveless, V-neck slipover blouse – the smallest size the pattern came in was a 12, and it was so large that at twelve years old I could pull it over the top of my school uniform, sweater and all. I rejected the blouse, I turned against needlework. I was going to be a modern, liberated woman, and live a life of the intellect: I associated domesticity with enforced slavery and boredom, and I did not sew again for many years.
Then came the seventies and eighties will all those PVC pinnies – so eminently practical and so cold and shiny. I remember I had one with a picture of Snoopy sitting atop a many-tiered burger in a bun, an apron which resolutely refused to wear out, just becoming more discoloured with age. And then I married someone who worked for a brewery, so I had a wardrobe of boringly plain canvas pinnies with the names of beers on them. Eminently practical, and eminently ugly.
And then, of course, came Cath Kidston with all those pretty flowers. My beery numbers were proving disappointingly hardwearing, and I nursed a secret desire for a wardrobe of flowery aprons. Having waited some years, quite unavailingly, for someone to put me out of my misery, and present me with one as a surprise, I suggested last Christmas that I would quite like a pretty apron. And this is what I received – one from my dear mother, and one from the Head Chef.
It may come as no surprise to the more percipient among you that my mother gave me the pretty, flowery one courtesy of the dear Cath, and my best-beloved interpreted ‘pretty’ as an orange-red stripe from the Aga shop. Of course, it is the thought that counts, and he looks very chef-like when he wears it.
And so, when I look at my word count, I feel that I might have tried your patience as I give you the story of my life, but I will leave you with one last picture of a pinny, made with my own fair hands, but with unalloyed joy this time round. I made this apron for Princess Bunchy, from the same pattern as her Bunchy dress (Burda 9755), and she was most touchingly pleased with it. And perhaps it marks the beginning of some apron memories for her, too.