Traveling ETOM exhibit ties past to present through aprons

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As the new year begins, there still a few days left to take a trip back in time through fabric in a special exhibit at the East Texas Oil Museum. 

“Apron Strings: Ties to the Past” is a traveling exhibit from Mid-America Arts Alliance showing the different styles and techniques of aprons from the 1900s to the 1990s. 

“This really just speaks to a large part of our era, which our era is the ’30s. A lot of these reference the ’30s,” East Texas Oil Museum staff member Fallon Burns said. “Now, they go all the way into the early ’90s, but a lot of these are the ’30s, and it shows the progression of, I like to say, recycle-reuse. You couldn’t just go buy anything, so you’ll see the aprons made out of handkerchiefs. There’s an apron made out of boxer shorts. You’ll see aprons made out of gingham. It was all about recycling, but it is cool to kind of watch the progression of how we as crafters, how we progressed.”

As society changed, so did the aprons.

“That’s what I think is really fascinating about it is that you really do see the progress of where we were in America or where we were in our history. You can start to tell when things get industrialized because the aprons change,” she said. “I just think it’s cool.”

Although Burns is not about to wear her heels and pearls to make dinner or clean the house, she said, it is interesting to see what women wore in the history of the country during a time when many women did not work. 

“This was their craft; their contribution to society other than just raising kids,” Burns said. 

What ETOM Director Merlyn Holmes likes best about the exhibit is how it spans so many decades, especially those during the oil boom.

“It just takes you back in time,” she said, noting it fits well with the rest of the museum.

The cost of the exhibit is just the regular admission price to the museum ($8 for ages 12 and up, $5 for ages 3-11 and free for children under the age of 3), so people can see the exhibit and then explore the rest of the museum.

During the era of some of the aprons from the 1930s, Burns said, the entire day was focused on providing food, shelter and water. Anytime women had time to themselves, though, it would usually result in a craft.

Talking about one patchwork apron in particular, Burns said, “I have my grandfather’s baby blanket that looked just like that; that’s obviously scrap material that they have just pieced together… If you think about it in terms of our culture, which some of the aprons do talk to our culture, that this is our way of preserving our culture because you’ve got these materials that have been passed down and especially in the ’30s era, you weren’t throwing anything away. It is really a way of preserving your heritage through what we make and the materials we use.” 

When an archaeologist is studying how another civilization lived, she said, the questions they want to answer are what they were making, how they were making it and what they were using it with and for. 

The aprons representing the 1950s were sometimes not the most practical, but instead used as decorative aprons.

“That speaks to where we were. We were out of the war. We finally had money. We were prosperous, so therefore we did things that were more decorative and not practical,” Burns said.

Seeing the aprons displayed, Holmes said, she likes all of them, but especially enjoys the older ones. An interesting aspect of the aprons she found is the continuity within decades that even without information about the apron, she could tell what period it was from based on the print and material. 

“I enjoy them because I can still see my mother wearing these. It just kind of takes you back in time,” she said.

Raised by her grandparents in Louisiana, Burns said, she also relates to the era the aprons represent and the feeling they evoke.

“We ate with real silverware, real china, set table every night,” Burns said. “My grandmother cooked two meals – breakfast and dinner – for me every day. I kind of grew up in this era because being raised by my grandparents, that’s where they were. That’s what they lived… That was of the era that you were always wearing the appropriate thing for the appropriate timing and everything was always as it should be.” 

Her grandmother did not change aprons to serve the food, but she did have a cooking apron, Burns said. 

The apron eventually became a sort of status symbol. Not in a superficial way, though.

“It was talent… It was way more based on talent than today, it’s brands,” Burns said. “It’s all about a brand.” 

People continue making aprons, though, and they have started to make a bit of a resurgence, she said.

“It’s still a craft. People are still doing it,” she said. 

Jessica Hutchens, of Lindale, visited the exhibit to get ideas about aprons she is hoping to create with a newly acquired sewing machine. 

“It reminds me of my grandmother because she had a lot of old-timey aprons like this,” she said. 

In particular, Hutchens said, she hopes to look at the different fabrics, colors and combination of material and designs to gather ideas for her own creations.

The exhibit will be at the museum through Saturday. At this time, it is the last stop in Texas on the tour.

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