Pleatwork Apron

What is it?

This is a linen apron with honeycomb pleatwork (smocking), meant to be worn around the waist and reach approximately ankle length.

It was known as a halbrock, or half-skirt apron (O’Neill). 

As shown in the images, the garment seems to be a rectangle of linen, pleated to a band. At the top, honeycomb shaped pleats serve as a decorative element and contain the bulk of the fabric. At the bottom, a line across the hem seems to indicate some decorative stitching may be included (Posavad). 

  • Left: Detail from Geschichte der Cloelia, by Melchior Feselen, 1529
  • Right: G. 615 RO. 255 Seamstress C.1535 (reprinted in McNealy)

Written sources of the time seem to indicate smocking and embroidery were used in aprons, often to excess:

“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.”

(Zander- Seidel in Posavad)

This type of honeycomb pleating was also found in shirts – for instance, a shirt found at the cloister in Alpersbach (Stadler). 

What was it used for and who used it? 

Aprons were used both for practical reasons – to protect clothing from food and other stains – and as a point of conspicuous consumption, showing fine fabric and needlework in a socially acceptable way.  These would have been worn, in varying levels of textile quality and decorations, by women throughout all social classes in 15th century Germany (O’Neill). I modeled this apron after something that might be worn by a more wealthy member of the Trossfrau, the landsknecht’s camp followers, for instance a tailor’s wife or a Landsknecht officer’s wife.

What time/location? 

This particular apron was modeled after ones worn in Germany in the mid 16th century, although similar aprons are found throughout Europe as early as the 14th century and through the late 16th century (von Lübeck ‘Fitzarbeit Buchlein” 25)

What materials and process were used in period?

These aprons were generally made out of white linen although aprons of other colors, or aprons of wool also appear to be an option (von Lübeck ‘Fitzarbeit Buchlein” 34). Pleating and embroidery would be completed in linen or silk thread. 

How did I make it? 

  • The apron is a rectangle of fine linen, sewn with a heavy silk thread meant for embroidery. Both thread and fabric were purchased long ago enough that I do not have details on their exact weights – this was a stash project.
  • After measuring the length and width of the apron I wanted, I cut the fabric. 
  • I hemmed it on three sides, using a running stitch on the folded edges of the long sides and a decorative cutwork stitch on the bottom. 
  • I marked the top edge at intervals to guide my gathering stitches. 
  • I used a modern polyester sewing thread to run gathering stitches through the pleats (since no trace of this thread would remain in the final garment). 
  • I used alternating rows of satin stitches in silk thread to form honeycomb pleats, and removed the gathering stitches after the pleating was done. 
  • I whipstitched a narrow, twice folded band of linen to the top edge to serve as a waistband and ties. 
  • I pressed the apron and starched the pleats, using my fingers to re-crease them for a crisper appearance.  

For more details on these steps, see Genoveva von Lübeck’s Pleatwork Book.  

What is different from the period version in materials or process?

This is not handwoven linen, though it’s a reasonable weight compared to the images I consulted and extant shirt fragments (Stadler and Nutz). Silk thread may not have been available at the socioeconomic level this apron was intended for, but I found it easier to work with than linen. I also used modern starch to make the pleats crisper, rather than period starch recipes. 

What would I do differently in a future version?

I’d like to try one of these with a fancier embroidery pattern, rather than just straight honeycomb, possibly with deeper pleating and/or more cutwork. I’d also like to experiment with period starch recipes for final finishing.

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