For some reason kitchen textiles popped into my mind today. Maybe it is because I need to sort out some things in one of the closets and it includes tablecloths and napkins, tea towels, etc. that had been my Mother’s. While I don’t have any of her aprons the most vivid memory from childhood that I have of her is wearing one.
Aprons, tea towels, potholders, tea cozies, and cleaning rags are among the list of textiles that used to be standard items in the home kitchen. Aprons are seldom seen in homes today. The wonderful embroidered tea towels featuring the daily chore girls that I grew up with are not common unless one has a love for old fashioned touches in your kitchen. Pot holders are still a must have in the home kitchen and include oven mitts and surface protectors to sit a hot pan on. Tea cozies are seldom seen unless you are a dedicated tea drinker or inherited a nice one that can be kept on display over a tea pot on a shelf.
Women used to busy themselves in their few spare minutes by knitting, crocheting, sewing and embroidering the useful textiles they handled and wore daily. Aprons were often as much exhibits of their ability to do fine decorative stitching as they were useful in keeping their dresses clean while they worked around the house or in the garden. Laces were applied to the bottoms and on other edges of the fancier ones. Embroidery of all sorts added color, texture and whimsy to a garment that originally only served to protect the clothes beneath while cleaning and cooking. In the 1800s women wore plain aprons around the house and in the garden but had fancy ones to change into when visitors called. In some countries, mainly in Europe, elaborate aprons were an important part of the national costume.
In the 1930s into the early 1960s some of the first items a girl would embroider would be some tea towels. If she were learning to use a sewing machine in a school home economics class she would often make an apron as a first sewing project and then wear it in the cooking section of the class. At home she would be given a tea towel with a simple stamped or hand drawn design, a wooden embroidery hoop, needle and some embroidery thread. Her mother would instruct her how to do simple embroidery stitches in the colored threads she was allowed to choose. In the early part of the 20th century the nicer of those were still put away in hope chests and saved for use when she married. In later times when most girls no longer had hope chests they were added to her mother’s linen closet.
For many years a potholder was often just the skirt of a long apron or part of a worn out and recycled quilt. When dress lengths became shorter in the early 20th century and aprons much shorter in response you began to see patterns for potholders appearing in women’s magazines. They were knit, crocheted, quilted and sewn. Many would contain a layer of wool flannel or quilt batting stitched between the outer sides for extra heat protection. One project for children in the 1950s was to weave potholders on a metal loom with special cotton loops for their mothers. Women still make their own distinctive potholders today from an endless variety of patterns available both in stores and online.
Cleaning rags were happily replaced long ago with sponges and other commercial products, such as paper towels. No more need to keep every scrap of old clothing and household linens that might be used up in that final way. The bath towels that had frayed on the edges and developed holes would be cut into smaller pieces and used for scrubbing tubs and sinks. Sheets were “turned”, cut down the center and the good sides on the inside and the worn sides on the new other edges. A flat seam down the center sent them back to the beds. When sheets had become too worn for that purpose they would be chopped into curtains, small table covers and other items. Lastly the remaining bits would be added to the rag bag and cut into dust cloths. Tablecloths that were too worn were cut into napkins and other small items but eventually ended up in the rag bag too.
Maybe it would not harm any of us bring back a few of those frugal habits.