I was inspired to make this apron after seeing the painting of Pyramus and Thisby, by Hans Baldung Grien, completed in 1530. In examining the painting, I noticed the woman’s apron; it appears to exhibit two different decorative techniques. The top of the apron shows traditional honeycomb smocking, found throughout most of Europe. However, the bottom of the apron is also decorative; my interpretation is that this is a form of drawnwork, which became increasingly common in later periods. As I began to research, I noticed other examples of aprons which appeared to have this same design, including Edward Schoen’s Seamstress. Upon analyzing these works, I set out to create my own interpretation of a smocked and drawnwork apron.
Aprons in Period
Aprons were extremely common in period. Although they were initially intended to be a protective garment worn by the working class, they became more decorative in later periods. Decorative aprons of fine linen were often willed from mother to daughter in upper class households. Aprons also came in a variety of colors; although white is most commonly found in paintings, many working women wore aprons of unbleached blue or green for working days, while black and white aprons were reserved for special occasions. Linen or silk thread would most likely have been used to construct aprons, although traces of undetermined vegetable fiber have also been found in stitching in north European archaeological excavations. Men’s aprons were often tucked into a belt at the top corners. Women’s aprons, however, were generally rectangular in nature and were connected to a waist band which was folded in half with the raw edges turned in. They could be flat, pleated, or otherwise decorated depending on the time and culture. Some aprons were wide enough to wrap around the woman’s hips, as shown in Pyramus and Thisby, while others were extremely narrow, spanning only a few inches. They could also be of any length, varying from just above the knees to the floor.
For my apron, I began with one yard of medium weight white linen approximately 40 inches wide. I used 40/2 white linen thread, which I waxed with beeswax for all construction and embroidery. I used a combination of pleatwork and drawnwork to embellish it.
Smocking is essentially embroidery worked on pleated fabric. The most common form found in aprons is the honeycomb stitch, in which pairs of pleats are whip-stitched together. Smocked aprons are most commonly found in the Lutrell Psalter, written and illuminated in late 14th century England.
Such aprons could also be found throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, including in England, Italy, and Germany. In Germany, these aprons became popular enough that sumptuary laws were written about them: “that no rich pleating should be on an honor-worthy apron-that also there should be less pleating and small smocking so the apron would not be so gathered.” Such laws may have accounted for the narrowing we see in later period decorative aprons.
To smock, the apron is first marked in a grid. I first removed a single thread at the top of my fabric to be certain I had a straight line; I began marking one inch below this line. I had previously created a template of half inch marks on a piece of cardboard. Using this tool, I marked a grid of nine horizontal rows, placing dots ½ inch apart. I used linen thread waxed with beeswax to essentially pick up the dots in each row. After I had run thread through each row, I pulled the threads tightly together; this formed series of tight pleats which formed the groundwork for the embroidery.
Once the pleating was complete, I formed the honeycomb pattern by working in between the pleating threads of each row. Starting in the space between the pleating threads 1 and 2, I brought my needle through the center of the first pleat. I then whip stitched the first two pleats together again using waxed linen thread. I worked the thread back to the wrong side of the fabric, and brought the thread down to the space between pleating threads 2 and 3. I brought my thread up through the center of the second pleat, and whip stitched the second and third pleats together. I again worked my thread to the wrong side of the fabric, and brought it back up through the center of the third pleat in the space between pleating threads one and two. I whip stitched the third and fourth pleats together. I continued in this series until the end of the row, working from right to left. I continued the pattern in the spaces between the other pleating threads, working in pairs, until completion. Once the honeycomb stitching was completed, I removed the pleating threads and slowly spread the fabric back out to expose the honeycomb.
Punto Tirato, also known as Drawnwork, dates as early as the twelfth century. It was primarily used for altar cloths; it was not until the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries that is was used outside of the Church. Punto Tirato is considered the first stage of needle-point lace. Its name comes from the Italian “tirare,” meaning to pull or draw. It is a technique which requires removing the threads of fabric from one direction (either warp or weft) while leaving the opposing threads intact. The remaining warp threads are then reformed into a pattern to create elaborate designs. Initially, Punto Tirato was most commonly done using white linen thread on a white linen background. In period, loosely woven fabric was most commonly used, as it was easier from which to draw threads. Once a sufficient number of threads were pulled, the remaining threads were closely whip-stitched or buttonhole-stitched together, creating geometric patterns. Eventually, darning and other stitches were introduced, creating more complex patterns; this gave way to more advanced forms of lacework, including Punto Tagliato (Cutwork), in which both warp and weft threads were removed, and Punto in Aria, in which specific stitches were placed to form true lace.
To complete the Punto Tirato on my apron, I pulled a total of 14 threads near the hemline of the apron. I pulled a single thread, skipped four threads, pulled 12 threads, skipped four threads, and pulled another single thread. At first, I tried to keep the threads I pulled intact; my plan was to use the same threads pulled to do the embroidery. However, I found the threads I pulled quickly shredded, and so were not usable. Once the threads were pulled, I used waxed white linen thread to work the embroidery.
I first worked a peahole hemstitch on the top edge of the drawn threads. The peahole hemstitch essentially forms a square around the upper portion of the drawn work between the single pulled thread and the larger drawn section. I brought my needle up from the back of the fabric through the area with the single thread pulled. I then brought it over the space with the four intact threads to the larger drawn section. I put my need behind four threads and then over the top of the same four threads, encircling them. I then brought my needle up from behind the fabric through the area with the single pulled thread four threads over from where I began. I then encircled the four threads in the single space before continuing. This essentially separated the threads of the ground fabric into sections of four threads apiece.
On the bottom of the pulled threads, I group two sets of four threads together to form an “X” of the remaining threads. I first sectioned off four threads using the same peahole hemstitch as I used on the top of the section. In the second set of threads, I repeated the sequence to the point of bringing my thread underneath the four ground threads. I then encircled all eight ground threads, tying them together at the center to form an “X.” I recircled the second set of four threads before completing the hemstitch.
Completing the Apron
To finish the apron, I folded the sides and hemline in twice to encase the raw edge of the fabric. I then used a running stitch to hold them in place. To complete the waist band, I cut a section of linen four inches wide. I did have to piece the band together to create ties long enough to actually tie in the back; the piecing is obvious on each end. I folded each edge in 1 inch and ironed them in place. I then folded the entire piece in half so that the raw edges were inside the band (essentially creating double fold bias tape which just wasn’t cut on the bias). I then placed the top edge of the apron inside the fold and pinned it in place. I then used a running stitch to sew the edges of the waistband together.
Areas for improvement
One of the main problems I encountered was removing the dots I had marked in the smocking. Although I used a pencil, I found that in handwashing the fabric with soap, the marks did not come out entirely. I was hesitant to wash the apron by machine, and I did not know the effect this would have on the drawnwork. I suspect the marks will probably wear off in time, and so did not pursue any other alternatives prior to competition.
A few of the pleats further did not come out quite as crisply as the rest. I suspect these were areas where I simple did not grab enough fabric underneath the dot when I pleated the fabric; this resulted in inconsistent pleating and ultimately a less crisp honeycomb. Practice should help me to become more consistent.
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