Tying a string around her memories
Local woman owns almost 200 aprons
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling the various personal collections of residents of Marshalltown and the surrounding area.
“It’s the nostalgia. It’s the story about who wore the apron that attaches people to it.”
These are the words of Joann Neven, who over the course of several decades has amassed a collection of nearly 200 aprons of every color, design, vintage, purpose and sentiment.
Perhaps owing to her background as an educator, Neven’s collection is meticulosity organized and cataloged. She possesses 197 aprons made out of the following fabrics: broadcloth, feed sacks, ticking, lace, plastic, satin, terry cloth, denim, organdy, taffeta, muslin, Dotted Swiss, flocking, gingham and embroidery, designed as pant-shaped, cobbler and half or full coverage. While most of the aprons were designed to appeal to women, she also has children’s and youth sizes, plus some for men (particularly butcher aprons), and mini aprons crafted to cradle soda bottles.
Neven, who hails from Oelwein, has resided in Marshalltown since 1967. Having grown up with an interest in cooking and sewing, she earned a degree in Home Economics (today known as Family Consumer Sciences) from the Teachers College (now called the University of Northern Iowa).
“Back then, all you could do with a degree in Home Ec. was teach, teach or teach,” she said.
She spent her career years with ISU Extension and Outreach and substitute teaching in northwest Iowa before landing a job locally, teaching language through Iowa Area Education Agencies (AEA). She and her late husband Gene, raised two children.
Despite her life-long interest in home economics, she didn’t start collecting aprons until well into her adult years.
“I don’t have any aprons from my grandmothers. They passed away in the early 1950s, and at that time I was a teen and not interested,” the collector explained.
Looking back, she noted, her wedding gown sported an apron component.
“I made my own wedding dress, and made a detachable panel for the front, which I guess you would consider an apron,” she said.
The word “apron” is derived from the Old French word “naperon” meaning napkin. Aprons, which are referenced in the Bible, were first depicted in paintings in the 1300s. While first associated only with the working class, the aprons of the 1600s were ornate and stylized, meant to add ornamentation to a plain-colored dress worn by nobility. In the 1700s, pinner-style aprons were all the rage. This variety was tied at the waist, with the upper half being pinned near the shoulders. Women in the Victorian era continued to appreciate aprons, which inspired magazines to begin releasing patterns for ladies to make their own at home.
“The oldest apron in my collection dates to the 1890s,” Neven said.
Aprons of the early 1900s took on a more practical purpose.
“Washing clothes was a real process, and women really needed to protect themselves from splatters and spills. They maybe only owned one good dress,” she noted.
Out of economic necessity, many women took decorative feed and flour sacks and crafted them into dish towels, clothes, toys and aprons.
“It would take several sacks to make one dress,” Neven said. “And women liked to pick out their own patterns.”
Jessica Faucher, corporate archivist at General Mills, explained in a company blog post: “White was the ideal flour that the consumers wanted to buy, so they would showcase that with the white flour sack. But when companies started noticing that aprons and pillows were being made, that’s when the more vibrant colors started appearing. The flour companies would try to one-up each other. Very early on, Pillsbury and Washburn Crosby competed with patterned flour sacks as well.”
Neven’s flour sack apron depicts a colorful garden scene.
Some of the other highlights in Neven’s collection include hand-embroidered creations, ones made from handkerchiefs, sheer, delicate styles appropriate for serving cake and punch at wedding receptions, foreign-made varieties, intricately crocheted styles, and aprons aimed at gardeners and butchers. She also owns retro and contemporary apron patterns for the sewing inclined. Some aprons are never used, while others are functional.
“I always wear an apron when I cook,” Neven said.
Her favorite style to use is made from terry cloth — a fabric commonly used to make towels.
“I like terry cloth the best because it’s easier to wipe my hands on,” she said.
Neven, who owns many books and resources on the art and history of collecting aprons, does presentations for local church and social clubs.
“When people move or their parents pass away and they don’t want to throw out the aprons, I get them because people know I’ll save them,” she added.
Neven sees aprons as having cultural significance.
“Nan is wearing an apron with rick-rac trim in the painting ‘American Gothic’,” Neven said. “This is probably the most recognized piece of wall art.”
Why do aprons maintain their appeal in the 21st century?
“People relate emotionally to the apron; there’s a real fabric connection, and a connection with people and food,” Neven concluded.
If you collect something interesting or unusual, contact this writer at the information below.
Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org