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Tied to the apron strings; From our mother's knee to the blacksmith's forge, an exhibition in Carmarthen this weekend reveals that pinnies say a lot about our history, culture and social standing. Kirstie McCrum finds out more.

Byline: Kirstie McCrum

Pinnies are an instrument of nostalgia and no mistake, redolent of childhood memories - be they of cooking with mam, baking cakes with nain or family barbecues in drizzly Welsh summers.

And it's not just at home. Pinnies can characterise the workplace too, such as plastic aprons for laboratories, leather ones for tradesmen or chef's whites in a professional kitchen.

An exhibition studying the roots of pinnies in our culture is running today and tomorrow at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthen.

Pinnies From Heaven is an inventive show of aprons with a story, a mouthwatering mix of vintage and modern which brings together the real history of our society with the fictional, and attempts to pin down the enduring appearance of the pinafore.

The exhibition has been put together by Ruth Furlong with the help of Sue Shields. As a former a lecturer in media and cultural studies, Ruth says that there's much to be learned from the place that this item of clothing has played in our lives through the ages.

"If we study its history, we discover that the apron - from the French naperon or napkin - is usually tied around the back, while the pinafore - from the l8th century meaning 'pinned to the fore' - has been around since biblical times and has not been solely consigned to the domestic.

"Some say it was even reputed to have been worn by Adam and Eve in the form of fig leaves on being expelled from the Garden of Eden," she explains.

From such historic beginnings, the pinny shows up again and again through the iconography of the past.

Ruth, from Creigiau in Cardiff, has a personal interest in the project. An avid collector of pinnies, when she started to research the subject she realised that there was more to them than the chintzy frilled pieces most often worn by our grandmothers.

"I found that the pinnies could be traced from biblical times through to the freemasons, the Rebecca Rioters, the suffragettes and more.

"They're also something which have been worn historically by both men and women in various forms.

"People still use pinnies nowadays, and there has been a revival in their domestic use.

"I'm not particularly interested in vintage cupcakes and all that, but it's terribly popular, and the huge revival in vintage does involve pinnies," she adds.

As well as offering a window onto the greater world of the pinny, the exhibition brings together some personal stories of pinnies in Ruth's own collection of around 50, as well as those of her friends.

"Over the years I have collected pinnies and I've always found them interesting. I remember my mother giving me one years and years ago. She came from a farm in Montgomeryshire. I hadn't realised until I asked her recently - she's 97 - that I found out it was my grandmother's.

"It's a long white one right to the ground and she used to use it when she made butter. It's so long that you practically trip over it, and I'm about 5ft 6in.

"Another I've got now I had to do in school. I'm in my early 60s and at school we had to do needlework and we had to make a pinny and use it as a template to embroider on, so it was a way for us to learn how to do simple embroidery," she reveals.

Once she had decided on the exhibition, Ruth found many of her friends had pinnies which they were happy to show, each with its own story.

"A friend of mine is a farmer and she said her father wore a pinny until he was put in breeches.

"So I investigated it and she's loaned me the photograph of her father and he's dressed as a little girl.

"Little boys were dressed like that in the early 1900s until they were breeched, which was almost a ceremony when they were put into shorts or trousers and then dressed as a boy.

"That's not just her, it was a phenomenon." As well as being an identifier in the workplace now, there are examples of the history of the pinny in real life being played out in fiction, in TV series such as Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

"Pinnies denoted social class in that period," explains Ruth. "In period drama, they all wear pinnies because they tend to get a bit pinny obsessed. Back in those days there were different types, so if they were downstairs, the pinny was much more functional, but if they came upstairs, they'd have these ones that go up the side with a frill.

"If they had posh guests at the house, they'd all wear posh pinnies, but you wouldn't see the upstairs people ever wearing a pinny."

[bar] Pinnies From Heaven is at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales near Carmarthen today and tomorrow. For more information go to www.gardenofwales.org.uk

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Aprons on show in Upstairs Downstairs and, below the Rebecca Riots Ruth Furlong with her collection of aprons and pinnies
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 12, 2012
Words:845
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