Nelly Don’s zero-waste apron design

In 1925, Ellen “Nell” Donnelly, Kansas City based designer and manufacturer of women’s clothing, patented this iconic apron design.  It was designed to minimize waste of fabric, and economize assembly and production.  For the wearer, the apron was designed to:

  • easily slide over the head
  • provide full front protection
  • not slip off the shoulders
  • accommodate large sleeves; and
  • allow for maximum arm movement.

Nelly Don Handy Dandy Apron photo from KSU collection -- resizedNelly Don patent drawings

(Apron photo from Kansas State University.)

The company manufactured the aprons and also sold the pattern for home sewing.

Nelly Don apron pattern
Image from

Nelly Don apron ad
Image from

Nelly Don led an interesting and sometimes dramatic life; always following her own personal code, and taking innovative care of her employees for the times.  She used the apron to keep her manufacturing company going during the Great Depression, and thereby kept her employees working.  She promoted women to management positions.  She offered health care assistance, high wages for the time, a pension, and work breaks with food and drink.  In 1931 she and her driver were kidnapped and held for ransom.  When unions attempted to organize her employees, she fought the unions in a marathon battle, keeping them at bay by showing her employees were better off than union members.  Here is a photo from her clothing manufacturing company in the Kansas City Garment District.

Nelly Don factory
Image from

The story of Nelly Don, her garment manufacturing company, and her apron, have been expertly told elsewhere.  Check out these links for more about her life and business:

There’s a musical about Nelly Don’s life.  More info here:

There’s a fact-based novel about her abduction and rescue.  It’s a really good book.  I call it a must-read.  I recently finished the Kindle version, and as the Amazon reviews say, it was fast moving, well researched, and a quick read.  I would have loved for it to last longer.

The Abduction of Nelly Don: Based on a True Story by [Patrice Williams Marks, (Jake) The Indie Editor, Brian Schell]

The Apron Patent:

The Nelly Don apron patent itself is brilliant reading.  Click on the image below to download a pdf copy of Nelly Don’s Apron Patent (4 pgs) :Nelly Don patent p2 of 4This 3-minute video has great images and footage from Nelly Don’s 1920s operations:

Nelly Don’s life in one minute:

Now, back again to the famous apron:

From reading about Nelly Don and her apron, I formed a small obsession with re-creating the apron from her patent diagram.  After several attempts, I believe I’ve conquered the challenge!  Stay tuned for the next post. 

11 thoughts on “Nelly Don’s zero-waste apron design

  1. This is some great information! I’ve been wanting to learn about my favorite designers from yesteryear. I have 2 Nelly Don dresses circa early 1960’s, I believe. I love that label. Great post thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was really interesting. I wish I could work for her…she seemed more than fair to her employees.
    What she did to the union was great…I read in wiki where she only dismissed one employee in her career…I mean…who does that?

    “It was reported that she only had to dismiss one employee in the entire history of the company.”


      1. Many today could very well use her formula today. I hate being cynical but allow me one time…they wouldn’t use it because if it cut 1 dollar off the bottom line they would dismiss it…what people don’t get…happy employees are better productive employees…her company was living proof.


      2. I’ll allow your cynicism and raise you one. I agree her formula would be widely dismissed today for the short term business model that only harvests cash before its inevitable spinoff, decline and ‘failure’. It’s anti-responsibility and anti-accountability. Sigh. I’ve always said that layoffs are not a management tool; they are a management failure.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. That is a great statement and I agree. Everything is short term now. Our company spends more money trying to save money constantly…it’s a shell game with the numbers.

        Liked by 1 person

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