Amy Karol talks about her lifelong love of vintage clothing, including aprons, and how vintage designs and patterns have influenced her own sewing and writing. You can find more of Amy’s inspirational work on her website, amykarol.com, on her popular blog or on her Flickr vintage aprons group, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I think I started collecting vintage aprons seriously probably in 1991, my first year of college. I was an absolute junkie for vintage clothing, which was pretty much all I’d worn for a long, long, long time. I was finding aprons everywhere and just started collecting them. I can specifically remember buying a full vintage apron in L.A. at some sort of vintage craft shop. At the time it was $5, and I was like, oh, my God, that was so much money for this. I was so poor, and it was back when aprons were 50 cents and people were using them as dishrags.
It was a full apron from the 1930s, exquisite, and it’s still one of my most prized aprons. I started collecting them after that, and aprons just started coming into my life. It’s weird. I don’t actually remember buying very many, though I know I did. They just would appear.
Around the same time I was also buying a lot of vintage table linens, and often they were together. It seems like aprons and table linens go hand in hand. There were a couple years where I got really busy with the apron thing, and then it died down after college. I was in Seattle for five years and didn’t do as much thrifting. When I got back to Portland and started having a family, it heated up again. I started cooking more again. But when I originally started collecting them, it was much more for fun dress-up. It wasn’t practical or awareness of the history. That happened later.
I still collect vintage aprons, but I don’t go out and hunt for them as much anymore because they seem to find me. People send them to me, which has been happening now for a couple of years. I don’t even know how many vintage aprons I have now, but it’s way, way more than I have on the Flickr photo group.
Collectors Weekly: Is a lot of the stuff you sew now influenced by vintage clothing?
Karol: Definitely. Just two weeks ago, I did a bunch of slips and tap pants, totally copied from my vintage slip collection. I have to say, my love for aprons is just an extension of my love for vintage clothing. The clothes are the big umbrella, and vintage aprons fell underneath it and were plentiful and inexpensive. I found myself in a weird position where I almost felt like I was saving them. I didn’t really wake up one day and say, oh, I want to collect these. They found me.
When I originally started collecting vintage aprons, it was more for fun dress-up. My awareness of the history happened later.
My vintage clothing collection is enormous and has been whittled down over the years because it was getting too out of control. I wore a vintage dress to prom my senior year, and that was the beginning. I graduated in 1990. It was Pretty in Pink with Molly Ringwald. It was unusual that I was wearing a vintage dress back then. It was from the 1940s and really pretty.
Aprons were just an extension. If I was having a party and wearing a vintage dress, I couldn’t obviously wear a normal apron. I take the role playing probably way too far. And at some point, I realized, I’m not going to be one of those people that drives an old car. How far am I going to take this? It started to catch up with me, so I’m not able to dress up as much as I’d like, but the aprons have stayed for sure.
I went through a phase where I would find new things that looked vintage because my old stuff was tattered or I was pregnant or just had a baby and couldn’t fit into anything. But I’m back now where I can get into my old clothes again. And I started sewing, in the case of slips, because I couldn’t find anything new that looked vintage and all my slips were torn apart and ratty and I thought, I’ll just sew it.
Collectors Weekly: Are there certain eras you’re more drawn to when you’re looking at vintage clothing?
Karol: My favorite has always been the 1930s, no doubt. But the most wearable for me is the 1940s because the ’30s things I love are just too exquisite (e.g. silk), things that don’t really merge into everyday very well. It’s also exorbitantly expensive to collect pieces from that time. 1940s housedresses and things are easier to find and much more wearable. There’s a dress-up version that I love and the daily grind variety, which I call my dust bowl dresses – the dusty sort of Middle America kind of look. And that works well with aprons as well, but 1930s and ’40s.
1950s vintage clothing is easy and great and totally fun, and I definitely have some 1950s pieces. There’s a vampy va-va-voom thing going on. It’s fun to do, but totally not my calling. Where I feel the, oh, my God, is the ’30s and ’40s, and that’s definitely true for shoes as well. Platforms make me crazy, not stiletto heels, and that’s pretty true with aprons too. It’s the full aprons with a drape quality to them rather than the pinched-waist Doris Day type things. Even in vintage hats, gloves, and purses, and pretty much across the board, it’s the ’30s and ’40s stuff that makes me super crazy.
What’s interesting is that there’s this 1980s revival right now, but so much of the ’80s was actually a revival of the 1940s that I’m actually able to find a lot of pieces I didn’t like at the time and they look really ’40s to me. People will say, “That’s really ’80s,” and I’m like, “No. It’s not. It’s really ’40s.” The stripes and the platform shoes. I always tell people, “Think Blade Runner.” If you see Blade Runner, really look at it, it was a total 1940s movie that was just done in the ’80s.
I’m actually really enjoying being able to find new pieces that people think are 1980s, like the big plastic chunky jewelry. Everyone thinks Pat Benatar, but I’m like, no, it’s like Carmen Miranda. The big plastic bangles, that’s so Cuban to me. So it’s funny. It just means I’m getting old, I think.
Collectors Weekly: What motivated you to start a Flickr group on vintage aprons?
Karol: I started another apron blog first, called Tie One On. I’d pick a theme every month, and people would take it and make an apron in that theme. The first theme I ever did was home on the range, however you wanted to interpret that. The next one was pink lemonade. Sometimes twenty people would do it, and then sometimes fifty or sixty different people would post pictures of their aprons. You have to have made them from scratch; they weren’t supposed to be vintage.
The whole point was that I’d been collecting vintage aprons for a long time and was getting worried they would disappear. I’d heard stories of people getting them and cutting them up. I wanted aprons to be put back out there as well, so that was the idea behind Tie One On, and I really wanted to do a group thing where all these people could use it as a reason to sew.
After about six months, it dawned on me to catalog my personal vintage apron collection. I blogged about it on Angry Chicken, and then thought about starting a whole other blog just about aprons. But then I saw Flickr, and thought, what a great tool. I’ll start a vintage apron group. It just took off. Two weeks later, I did the vintage apron sewing pattern group, which is just as important for me because it documents the patterns. In my mind, I can’t separate out vintage aprons from aprons made from vintage sewing patterns, because most vintage aprons were made at home by the home sewer. It wasn’t really that common to purchase an apron, except for cocktail aprons in the 1950s and ’60s.
For me, the Flickr apron group is wonderful. I love digging through it. But I go back and forth between that one and the vintage sewing pattern group. Aprons are hard to photograph, and with the vintage sewing pattern group, you get the illustrations on the front of the sewing pattern, which give so much information on the details and lines. When I’m doing my own research, I most always start in the sewing pattern section first and then look at what people have in their collections.
Collectors Weekly: Do people typically collect vintage sewing patterns to use them or just to use them as inspiration?
Karol: I think people are totally terrified to use them, and for the most part, they don’t. The truth is, they’re hard to use. Vintage patterns are definitely intermediate to very advanced sewing, and your regular old sewer right now doesn’t have the chops to sew these things and people know it. So I think that often they collect them just to collect them.
It’s just a different time now. When these sewing patterns came out, people had been sewing probably since they were five and were used to sewing a lot of their clothing. It can be hard for a beginning sewer. Honestly, too, people aren’t used to wearing clothes that fit. I’m not saying everyone wears elastic-waist pants, but a lot of fabrics have stretch in them now. Most cotton-woven and knit fabrics have stretch, and that’s just regular waistbands, not to mention things you just pull on.
So I think part of it is that people don’t always understand not just how to sew, but how to fit themselves and even how to buy clothes that are fitted. People are used to wearing things off the rack and not having clothes tailored to their bodies, which makes sense because who can afford custom-made clothes? But what’s interesting is that the middle- to working-class person who’s sewing their own clothing gets a better quality fit than the average person today. You can go to Old Navy and buy, what, 20 pieces for a hundred dollars, but none of it might actually fit you.
These vintage patterns are fitted and you have to make alterations, so you’re up against the actual pattern construction, which can be challenging – and that’s an understatement. And you’re up against alteration, because chances are, you’re not going to be able to fit. Unless you’re a fit model, you’re not going to have the body that it’s cut for, which means that you have to be advanced enough to know how to alter it. So I think those two factors can make sewing from vintage patterns really challenging.
Finally – and this sounds crazy, but it’s true – we don’t often wear the right support garments anymore for these types of outfits. So even if you are a petite little thing, you’re probably not wearing a girdle, and these dresses, especially the ’50s dresses for sure, there were some really serious support garments happening under these dresses that helped the fit.
So for a lot of those reasons, it’s turned into more of a collector/fetish thing, and I don’t mean that the bad way. Thank God people have fetishes about vintage stuff, and I can include myself in that group, because there’s an appreciation and it’s across the board. You have to be into the shoes, the stockings, the undergarments, the clothing, otherwise it starts to fall apart somewhere. You don’t have to recreate it exactly, but at least you’re interested in knowing how to.
Of course, the other thing is that sewing clothes at home, thank God, is coming back, but it was dying out for a while for the same reason that healthy home-cooked food was – because fast food is cheaper. You can buy things so much cheaper now than you can sew them. There was a time that sewing did make sense in terms of saving money, but now it’s hard to get excited about sewing a T-shirt when you can get one for $7.
Collectors Weekly: When did you start sewing, and what are you really inspired by when you sew your own clothes?
Karol: I don’t remember ever not sewing, but probably I was sewing projects on my own when I was 5 or 6 – toys and things, not clothes. I didn’t start sewing clothes seriously until high school. Maybe eighth grade I sewed a dress, and then in high school I sewed lots and lots of dresses. It was a Laura Ashley time, lots of yardage, and people were sewing a little bit then, too. I wasn’t completely a weirdo or anything, but I was sewing a lot.
In terms of inspiration, it usually works something like this: I’ll see something that looks vintage in a catalog and say, oh, my God, that is so awesome. I cannot believe it’s $249, and I decide I could sew something similar. By the time I actually get around to doing it, if I do it, it’s changed and morphed and I don’t remember what I liked about it. I lose the picture, but it’s interesting.
I don’t get direct inspiration from vintage items as much as I get more inspiration right now from reinterpretations of vintage stuff. Whenever I look at something new, I can always say it reminds me of something from this era, and I’m completely bored by anything that looks completely contemporary. But I love clothing, and I’m always, always, always looking at clothing.
In terms of my own designs, I do get inspired by what’s happening in contemporary areas. I also get a lot of inspiration from my sizable collection of vintage children’s books (all I do all day is read to the girls). Seeing clothing drawn makes me so excited. I think that’s why I’m so into sewing patterns. I’ve recreated so many outfits for the girls from the vintage kids books. Pre-1950s, it’s interesting. There are lots of pinafores and really simple dresses and Peter Pan colors and stuff. We’ll be reading and I’ll hone in on something and they’ll say, “Why are you stopping on this page?” and I didn’t even realize I was stopping. There’s something about a drawn version of vintage clothes I find fascinating.
I also have my big Sears Roebuck catalog – a reproduction of the 1901 version – and then I have all the Dover Sears books from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, which I used when I was working as a sewer at a costume shop in college. So I have references, but again, these are photographs and lithographs, and though they’re much more realistic, they don’t excite me as much as artist-drawn versions.
So though I say that my designs are all contemporary, I do get a huge amount of influence from older sources. It’s such a part of my life that I don’t even notice it anymore. I’ve had all that stuff lying around for years in my psyche. It’s in me, and when I reinterpret it, that’s when I get excited.
Collectors Weekly: In your own designs, do you use a lot of trim and ribbon and buttons?
Karol: I do use a lot of binding and piping. Ribbon sounds frilly, but it’s not like that. It’s more like the 1930s and ’40s. You’d see a pocket, but it would be lined in a really, really tiny 8-inch piping in a different color. It’s the details. That’s my passion, because otherwise I’d feel like it’s just basically almost like a purchased item. The little stuff is a lot of fun.
In my book, there’s a big section on making your own binding and how to make ruffles. You can buy it all pre-made and that’s just as cool, but it’s really fun to use. Solid bindings, you can buy them in any color, but then imagine one with stripes or with polka dots. It’s like hey, that’s actually pretty much impossible to find new without making it. So I strip it down a little bit.
Some people might find it annoying, but I really like doing things that people are like, oh, certainly you wouldn’t want to do that. You just would buy that. The point of making a dress is making a dress, but for me, the point is making the pocket on the dress. So I’m making a dress, but really I’m mostly excited about the pocket. It’s like if I make a potato salad the most exciting thing for me is to make the mayonnaise from scratch.
In the last two years, I’ve been stripping it down more to where the end thing isn’t necessarily what drives me. It’s more this one component that you would never normally think that you can make yourself. I want to try it because I haven’t done it before. I like to do things I haven’t done before, and those tend to be the details.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us about your book and the inspiration behind it?
Karol: It’s called Bend-the-Rules Sewing and it’s been out for two years now. I have another coming out next summer. The first one was actually going to be about sewing aprons, but then my publisher really wanted a basic sewing book, so it’s 26 projects geared towards beginners. There’s a general section on how to sew, how to get started, how to find a machine, and then there’s projects and patterns. The whole idea is learning basic skills, but not getting too caught up on rules; finding your way and an attitude about sewing. For some people it really resonates; for others, they needed a lot more specific instruction.
I find I learn best by reading minimal text and then trying it. The difference between intellectualizing and actually doing something physically is huge. Often when people have questions about my projects, they’ll tell me, “I’m stuck on this,” but almost always they haven’t tried it yet; they’re just trying to figure it out in their head. When you’re physically doing it, the answer often becomes apparent. So that’s the way I wrote this book, and it’s gotten a huge response, which is awesome.
My second book is an extension of the first, but with a little more artistic flair – for example, ways to customize your fabric before you make your project. If you look at my book, it barely looks vintage at all. It’s very contemporary, but I see vintage all throughout it, and of course those aprons. There’s a classic 1950s apron pattern included. That’s a really good one to know how to do.
Collectors Weekly: Did apron designs vary much by era?
Karol: Definitely. When you get into the 1950s aprons, there’s this whole group of cocktail aprons put on solely for decoration, usually chiffon. They were often see-through. You’d absolutely never wear them in the kitchen. You’d wear your real apron in the kitchen and then switch into your party apron, usually pink or black or something totally adorable and bizarre and mildly erotic. You’d put that over your dress and tie it around your waist. So you can see what was going on. Maybe these people had maids, but most likely they were playing up this domestic thing.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the aprons were more workhorses, although there were always nice aprons for company and house aprons that you’d wear everyday. Often women would wear two aprons: a nice clean one underneath and their house apron on top, so if someone came to the door, they’d take off their dirty apron and underneath they’d have their clean apron. Actually, there were always dress-up aprons. Actually, they think Marie Antoinette was the first to use aprons to dress up at Versailles when she was playing milkmaid. Her aprons were fun with gold lace.
Collectors Weekly: How many different styles of aprons are there?
Karol: There’s the basic 1950s apron shape you think of, with the little waist and gartered skirt and pockets. Then there’s a cobbler apron and a full apron and pinafores and smocks, which I consider aprons as well. There’s at least a dozen styles, when you include half aprons and full aprons, and within that, different ways to embellish. There were light quilts that could express anything you wanted.
With the light quilts also goes a pretty established history of how to embellish an apron. If you did Gingham, you almost always did what was called chicken scratch embroidery on it. If you did a cobbler apron, you almost always had a contrasting binding. If you did rickrack, you would do it in a certain way.
There was also a different apron history in England and Australia, and different trends and ways of embellishing. There’s a whole type of embroidered apron in England; handwork that happened that we never saw over here. There were pillowcases that were embroidered that way here, but not aprons so much. This was in the 1930s and ’40s, and those full aprons and pinafores are getting really hard to find. They’re just not very common.
There’s a lot of focus on new aprons now, but they’re just not as elegant as what you see in the vintage sewing patterns. There’s a couple of aprons I know intimately; Alice in Wonderland aprons and Raggedy Ann aprons. I did an apron of the Dorothy version for my daughter, Sadie, for Halloween, but it was really a pinafore dress, though it can still easily be an apron. Aprons are a great project to start sewing with because they’re not really that fitted.
All the aprons in my Flickr vintage aprons group, the group featured on Collectorsweekly.com, are either found objects (original vintage aprons from someone’s own personal collection) or aprons sewn from vintage patterns. There are many duplicates, because a lot of the same patterns are floating around out there.
Collectors Weekly: How important is finding the right fabric to use?
Karol: The most important thing in a sewing project is picking a suitable fabric. No matter how good your construction skills are, if your fabric is inappropriate, it won’t drape or it won’t move. It just won’t feel right. Even though you did it all right, it’ll be stiff or whatever.
The best way to really learn about fabrics is to look at what you already have in your closet. Anything you touch, check what the content is. Sometimes it’s hard because it might say 100 percent cotton, but there’s a difference between a T-shirt and the sheets on my bed – one is a satin cotton cloth and one is a knit-cotton jersey. You’ll start to be aware of content and of weave.
Looking at catalogs is another good way to get in touch with the weave. J.Crew is a great one, because they’re pretty good with their descriptions: that shirt is broadcloth, that jersey has 10 percent Lycra, this skirt is herringbone. It gives you all these terms and you can look at the picture. If you’re not in the store, you can at least imagine, I’ve felt that before.
Then with all of that knowledge, when you’re in the fabric store, you can look for those things. People just get drawn in by a fabric and think, oh, this looks like it would make a great, funny, funky skirt. But wait a minute. It’s rough. Its weave is way too big. It’s stiff. It was never intended for garment sewing. It’s a novelty print that would probably look good as a curtain. If you make it into a skirt, it’s always going to look and act like a curtain. Lots of times people want prints, and prints are not often printed on appropriate fabric for clothing. So you end up with a lot of solid colors, and think, shoot, I could just buy these at the Gap.
Part of why I wrote my second book is to let people know that you can take plain fabric and screen it yourself or alter it yourself. If you really want a pattern on it, you can start with a fabric base that’s more appropriate. I think it’s awesome that people are using a lot of cotton quilting fabrics for clothing, but at a certain point you may realize, I feel like I’m wearing a quilt. You just have to not get sucked in by the drama. If it feels like a pillow, don’t try to make a dress out of it.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of vintage apron collectors and vintage clothing collectors out there?
Karol: Yes, it’s growing and growing. It’s definitely gotten more popular in the last five years. You’re definitely not seeing vintage aprons much at thrift shops anymore; they’re all going to antique malls, because people know. Same with vintage linens too … it’s nice to know that people aren’t trashing them, that they’re appreciating them.
In terms of advice to collectors, it’s hard because I have not seriously thrifted on a regular basis since the end of college, which was before eBay. My suspicion now is that vintage aprons and vintage patterns probably aren’t as easy to find, and if you do, they’re probably more in antique malls or places where there are dealers. You’re not going to really find anything that predates the ’70s at estate sales or Goodwill.
If I really want a vintage-looking piece, I’ll try and sew it. The only thing that excites me other than that is these people online now who are actually doing reproduction work, either with a spin or straight up by-the-book. There’s a remix site that does all the reproductions you might want from the ’30s and ’40s, and holy crap, they are gorgeous. They’re 150 bucks or 200 bucks, but I’d rather spend my money on something like that.
If you’re just beginning to collect vintage clothing, don’t be afraid to collect reproductions, especially if you want to wear it and enjoy it. There’s a lot available now. A lot of people are doing vintage dresses or vintage-inspired dresses from vintage patterns. It’s a really great way to support people and small businesses, too, but also, you get to wear it and you’re not up against the whole does it smell like smoke? And it was in someone’s house deal. There are people in L.A. and Hollywood who are really, really good about collecting real pieces, and they’re taking care of them and they rent them out or they’re in museums.
With reproduction, I know I can look the stuff up and research and appreciate it and that it’s being well maintained and taken care of. I think vintage clothing will get there eventually, too. People are starting to wake up. Vintage typewriters are now starting to really take hold, whereas before their keys were getting clipped off and made into charm bracelets. I also think rotary phones are going to be more taken care of again. Everything is going to be valuable eventually.
So whatever you’re interested in, a really nice thing to collect is source material – books and magazines and things. A huge thing for me is just looking at the pictures, because where are we going to wear this stuff anyway? We can only dress up so much!