July 4, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

According to the King James Version of the Bible, the use of aprons dates back to Adam and Eve:

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons,” Genesis 3:7.

That original apron made of fig leaves may be the only apron that isn’t represented in Donna Shonkwiler’s vintage collection. 

“I started collecting aprons because they take me back to my childhood days, when my mother and sisters and I wore them to do our chores together,” Shonkwiler recalls.

The apron collector lives in the Florence area but grew up in rural Brazil. Her missionary parents were poor (they had to clear the land to build their house, which had no indoor plumbing or electricity). Nevertheless, she has fond memories of those days. “It was a happy time for me, when life was simple,” Shonkwiler says 

Shonkwiler’s vast collection of aprons—most of which are carefully ironed and hanging on clothes racks—represents various time periods, locations, ethnic groups, and purposes. Included are aprons with names of states and countries. Some are indicative of particular cultures. Others are made for specific purposes. 

She has sturdy cotton aprons with pockets for crafts or gardening, as well as delicate and frilly aprons worn by the lady of the house for special occasions. Many of her aprons have elaborate embroidery, crochet, rickrack, lace, appliqué, and/or cross-stitching. Some have ladies’ hankies sewn onto them. 

“Aprons were a form of art that reflected a woman’s talent,” she explains, “each limited only by her imagination.” 

According to Shonkwiler, aprons had many uses beyond protecting clothes while cooking. “We used aprons to collect eggs from the chicken coops and vegetables from the garden,” she says, “in addition to drying a child’s tears and wiping a perspiring brow.” Also, some were made with extra padding at the edges so they could double as hot pads. “Most grandmas and moms were seamstresses out of necessity, and passed down their talents to their children at an early age.” 

Although primarily consisting of women’s aprons, her collection does include some
barbecue aprons for men. 

Shonkwiler’s 35 years of collecting has resulted in “probably” 400 aprons, mostly all handmade, and amazingly, no two alike. She has cultivated the collection through flea markets, garage sales, and thrift stores. A few of them date to the early 1900s. 

Her favorite apron holds special meaning, as it was made by her mother. The eyelet full apron (meaning it includes a front bib) was sewn especially for Shonkwiler.

Shonkwiler’s unique collection has never been on display…until now. An exhibit of her aprons kicked off the annual Florence Days celebration on May 12. Family Ties: Art of the Apron will remain on display (with some of the aprons available for sale) at the Florence Mill ArtLoft through July 15. The eyelet apron, a cherished memento normally tucked safely away in a cedar chest, is part of the display.

After a 47-year career as a respiratory therapist, Shonkwiler is enjoying her retirement. “I’ve loved collecting aprons all these years,” she says. “Now it’s time to share my collection with others, so they can enjoy them, too.”


Visit the Florence Mill on Facebook at @theflorencemill for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha.