V23: 18th Century Accessories – Embroidered Aprons

Lewis Walpole Library

Despite working on a 1912 Titanic gown currently, and having several other projects lined up before I need to start on the Colonial Williamsburg stuff, I just can’t stay away from the 18th century.

I’ve been thinking about accessories, primarily the pretty, sheer, white, embroidered type – caps, apron, and neckerchiefs.  I want to make a variety of these to take to Williamsburg, to give a different look to my ensembles each day.

For all the ambitions I have to suddenly pull perfect hand-embroidered Dresden work out of my ____ , I know that my patience and skill for embroidery actually sucks.  Really.  So I’ve been shopping for sheer items that have already been masterfully embroidered that I might use to trim an apron, a cap, or a neckerchief.

Click “Read More” for my findings and research images…

I found this lovely piece on Etsy:

From “Shopolga” on Etsy – an embroidered sheer net panel 37″ wide, 42″ in length
Detail from the embroidered net panel – sold as “Victorian,” definitely vintage.

I thought this panel made a pretty good go at Dresden-look embroidery, is not too obviously machine-made (maybe not machine made at all), and matches up pretty closely with these embroidery designs taken from Provencal folk costume, which itself is very 18th century in style:

From a Provencal folk costume fichu
From a Provencal folk costume – fichu

One of my limitations with this vintage embroidered panel will be the width.  In her series on 18th century aprons, Hallie notes that the width was typically somewhere around 54″ , and the apron shown in Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790 uses two widths about 37 ” wide, for a very wide, 74″ apron.  I’ve only got about a yard width for mine, so there won’t be much gathering happening on the waist tapes.

Aprons were worn by all levels of society.  They were useful for the lower sort, but were symbols of domesticity for the upper classes.  They were constructed of all kinds of materials – silk, net, sheer cottons, linen, cotton check, stripe.  They could be white, black, polychromatic, spotted, worked, tamboured, printed,  you name it.  For my impression, I want white and textural, so I will be looking for dotted swiss voiles, batistes, and lawns, along with embroidered trims, or open-work on sheer, for ruffles and edges.

Here are some images showing upper class gowns with aprons:

From Colonial Williamsburg’s site.  The model’s apron is sheer and embroidered all over.  It looks wider than 37″, but not by much.
Aprons were not always square.  This one is an oval shape, also embroidered with dots, and with a ruffle.  I believe this is from the Lewis Walpole collection
“An Evenings Invitation, With a Wink from the Bagnio” – Walpole gallery – examples of a very long apron embroidered all over with floral sprigs
From the V&A, 1785-90, a simple sheer apron with no embroidery, but what looks like a ribbon trim.
Patricia Harris Gallery – a heavily embroidered border – you can see the neckerchief is embroidered too
Ekaterina Ivanovna Nelidova (1773) by Dmitry Levitzky, showing off her apron
V&A – quite a massive apron, embroidered all over, 1750-70

I’ve bought the one piece on Etsy so far, and there is another in her shop I have my eye on.  I will also be on the lookout for embroidered cotton curtain panels, and bits of “special occasion” and heirloom sewing fabric that might do nicely.


  • Zach

    January 23, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    Those are neat! For some reason, it never even occured to me that the upper class wore aprons (18th century is obviously not my forte). I especially love the oval shaped and the one in the 1773 painting. On a side note, WOW that hairdo in the first picture! I had to do a doubletake!

  • MrsC (Maryanne)

    January 23, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    The ribbon one looks lovely too Lauren, and easy to do. 🙂 I think the panel you have bought is glorious! Clever spotting. All the best with this project, it is fascinating to watch!

    • Lauren R

      January 24, 2012 at 2:32 AM

      I'm all for the vintage textiles, like old curtains or tablecloths. This might be crazy, too, but there's an embroidery place in town that I thought about going to have a chat with…

  • Sharon

    January 24, 2012 at 2:48 AM

    It's a lovely piece, and you have a good eye for motifs with the 18c feel. But in period, aprons are not seen embroidered-on-net. In fact embroidery on net is generally considered to be an early 19c form of needlework. Needle-run on net can sometimes be used in lieu of bobbin lace for small items like sleeve flounces, but the expanse of an apron is so conspicuous! Any possibility of incorporating this into an Edwardian lingerie dress instead? In future, for 18c use, try to look for embroideries on fine cotton sheers. They do exist.
    Happy hunting!

    • Lauren R

      January 24, 2012 at 3:11 AM

      Sharon, very interesting, but I respectfully disagree. Costume Closeup shows an extant garment made of net (The Mantle on page 50), and also describes aprons as being made of "spotted, needle worked, black and white silk, worked muslin, black patent net, and lawn." The LACMA book "Fashioning Fashion" has an example of a man's cravat from 1795 that appears to be bobbin net, pg 156. V&A's 17th/18th c. Fashion in Detail book shows net being used to trim a gown, 1775-1780 (pg 36). The LACMA book also mentions that from 1808, the bobbin net machine made this textile more readily and cheaply available, no doubt why we see more of it in Victorian clothing. The machine only replaced the hand craft, though, which existed long before. The idea that bobbin net was not used to make aprons, when it was used to make cravats and cloaks, trim gowns, and make sleeve flounces (two examples seen in the KCI book), is silly, particularly with so few extant examples of aprons left today to prove whether they did or didn't. We cannot rely solely on the existence of extant garments, but have to look at all the resources.

    • Sharon

      January 25, 2012 at 4:37 AM

      Yes, I guess we shall have to agree to respectfully disagree. So many fashion do's/don'ts are "silly", but they're so. My own choice is to defer to extant objects, as they're hard to dispute. If you can show me an extant embroidered net apron c. 1770-80, I'll concede!

  • Anonymous

    January 24, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    I understand the upper class women wore aprons to symbolize domestic charms (ie able to manage a household) but they deliberately made them so it was obvious the lady didn't actually do work in them. Sheer fabrics or expensive materials or elaborate details would signal "I am the lady of the house but I have girls for that work."

  • Cynthia Griffith

    January 24, 2012 at 5:55 PM

    I love adding accessories, especially if I can add even more detail like embroidery to put it over the top! 🙂 Aren't those aprons beautiful? I have a lot of things to sew this year, but I'm hoping to try Dresden work for a few pieces if I can find the time. Dreamy!

    • Cynthia Griffith

      January 25, 2012 at 5:02 PM

      I'll share any progress I make on my blog 🙂 If it makes you feel any better, my mom tried to teach me embroidery when I was a kid and I just made a huge mess of it! I thought I could never do it, but when I discovered an embroidery website a year ago or so, with videos and gave it another try, I was pleasantly surprised! I'm hopeful I'll have some luck with Dresden work (although finding the time to do it is making me wonder if I've lost my mind *laughs*) 😀

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