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. 

DIY Ironing board cover

My ironing board cover was already in bad shape before I had to press pleats in hundreds of cotton face masks.  Yet, I pressed on.  Eventually the situation got ridiculous.


My ironing board is a vintage wood model; and slightly smaller than today’s standard store-bought ironing board, so a store-bought cover is too big.  Using a 50% off coupon, I purchased 1/2 yard of ironing board cover fabric.

I removed what was left of the old cover, flattened it out, and traced the shape onto the new fabric.

Ironing board cover -- old

The drawstring in the old cover was actually still good and strong, so I removed it for use in the new cover.

To avoid a bulky drawstring casing, I zig-zagged around the edge of the cover with the drawstring in the middle of the zig-zag stitching.

The finished zig-zag drawstring edge looks like this close up.

Zig-zag casing

For the padding under the cover, I used a piece of left-over cotton quilt batting.  The uneven edge you see is not erratic cutting; it’s where I stretched it.  After seeing this picture, I went back and re-situated it, although it was probably fine. 🙂

Ironing Board underneath

The cover is already looking used, … because it’s getting a lot of use.

Ironing Board cover

The new cover was a quick make, and is so much better to iron on than the old one, that I never should have put off making it.

Not covers.  Scotland has been putting out some nice lockdown music.

The lovely Vera has been called up for active duty.

She is 75 years old and still dependable.  ‘Vera’ is my Singer 127 treadle sewing machine, manufactured in the early 1940s and originally purchased in Indiana in February 1945.  Some of the masks I’m making require several colors of thread.  It’s a total drag to rethread the machine multiple times for one mask batch.  So, I’ve called upon my older machines.  For now, Vera is handling the ecru thread color.

Vera has the rare black ‘crinkle’ finish, and blackside metal plates.  The lamp isn’t sitting on the cabinet for decoration; it’s a necessity.  There’s no light on the machine since it isn’t electrified.

Vera the Machine

Here’s a closer view of her crinkle finish and black metal plates.  The plainness of the finish and lack of embellishments says ‘wartime’ to me. Vera closeup

Vera crinkle finish

In the cabinet there’s a well-stocked drawer of presser feet, an old metal seam gauge, needle threaders, and a good supply of bobbins.  (It is a ‘vibrating shuttle’ machine, which uses long, narrow bobbins.)

Vera equipment drawer

Another drawer holds the original purchase receipt, and user manual.  Her original purchase price was $105.75.

Vera paperwork drawer--redact

The handwritten note on back of the receipt says:

  • 5 year guarantee
  • 5 year free service
  • Free sewing courseVera warranty

In another drawer is the all-important sharp pointed tool for piercing a new treadle belt.  It serves as a bodkin, too. Belt tool

Sewing with a treadle machine is like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  Your feet work the pedal, while the right hand is on the hand wheel, to be the starter, speed controller, and ’emergency brake’.  That leaves only the left hand to maneuver the fabric.  When it all gets going, the sound and feel is mesmerizing.

More about the Singer 127:

A blog post about the crinkle finish and blackside metal.

And I’ll be darned, look who else was channeling Vera this week.

Making Fitted Masks

The mask-making frenzy is less of a frenzy now, but masks are still needed, and will be needed for months to come.  I’m making a few masks each day, and trying out some of the other designs available on the internet.  I had been making the pleated masks, but I now also love making the shaped mask version that doesn’t have pleats.

For the shaped masks, I’ve used the fitted mask pattern by Tina Elmore-Wright, downloaded from the Joann mask-making page.

[Pattern download link here:]

The pattern has four different sizes, from infant to men’s/large.  My brother the transit driver gave a thumbs-up to the men’s mask.  The second largest size is for women/teens.  That one fits me well.

Shown below are all but the infant size.


It makes it fun to do sets of family masks. IMG_20200421_155500704aw

It’s fun to use with prints. IMG_20200425_185640442awIMG_20200424_164547590aw

A word of caution:  The pieces need to be cut in mirror images. IMG_20200425_185708066w

Otherwise, you’ll end up with two right or two left pieces, which can make for some er, unplanned combinations. IMG_20200425_185626632aw

There is still a need for the masks in the health care and care home sectors.  Then as businesses prepare to reopen in the coming weeks, they will need masks for staff, customers and visitors.

Thank you to health care workers, care home workers, and front line workers everywhere.  You are keeping us going.



Shout out to fellow mask makers

From this view I’d say there are a lot of us.


Creating fun compositions for family and friends has given me a chance to indulge my creativity.

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I’ve given them to neighbors up and down my street, and across the back yard.  When a neighborhood diner gave out free drive-through breakfasts, I reciprocated by giving them some masks.  Initially, I expected most people to say ‘no thank you’ when I offered masks.  Turns out no one has declined.  Everyone wants a mask.  Everyone.

I’ve made a few batches of masks for care home and hospital staff.  It bewilders me that it is individual nurses and aids who are desperately seeking these simple protections to keep their patients, coworkers and themselves and families safe.  Where are their employers in all of this?


This mask, that can cover an N95 mask, is what I started out making.  But it turns out N95 masks are like unicorns.  No one I’m giving masks to has one, or knows where to find one.  (Awesome tutorial here:

So, I’ve switched to the simple flat pleated design based on two 9″x6″ rectangles.  It’s much faster to construct and requires less fabric.  Another huge bonus is that it fits in a regular #10 envelope, and costs only a 1st class postage stamp to mail.  This has enabled me to get them to out-of-town friends and family quickly and economically.  Mine are substantially based on the pattern from the Turban Project.



One of my biggest frustrations is about the friends and family who want to learn, or relearn to sew, to help fulfill the huge need for masks right now.  I want badly to invite them over and have them sew with me, but I can’t because of the need for social distancing.

Earth Hug GIF by MarchForOurLives

Carry on, mask warriors. You are doing important work.

A heartfelt virtual hug to those in isolation or quarantine, or who have loved ones out of reach.  My wheelchair-bound mom is in a locked down care home.  The most I’ve been able to do for her is send her a mask, and send masks to the staff, and text her ‘Happy Easter’.

Orla oh la la

Back in January, I purchased this Tilly and the Buttons ‘Orla’ top pattern.  It’s now September, and finally I’ve made an Orla top.   The pattern was a joy to use.  Orla sewing pattern - Tilly and the Buttons

I wanted to make a top with print sleeves and a solid colored torso.  This cotton upholstery fabric in my stash seemed right for the torso.  It was salvaged from sofa cushion covers I’d made years ago.  There were worn spots on the fabric, but there were enough good areas to carve out the body of a blouse from it.

IMG_20190911_133440187a RSR

This Paris print cotton was something I simply liked when I saw it in the store, so I bought 1/2 yard for the sleeves.  My plan was to make a muslin shell to test the pattern, and if things turned out well, it would be a wearable muslin.

Paris print b RSR

Voila! A wearable muslin! 

IMG_20190911_103509068aw RSR

Where I deviated from the pattern:

  • Adjusted the sleeve length to a 3/4 sleeve.
  • Used a stand up/rolled collar instead of the pattern options.
  • Added a few gathers to the top of the sleeve rather than the pleat in the pattern.
  • The pattern suggests using lightweight drapey fabrics, but I used the heavy cotton, and I like the result.

IMG_20190911_103522654aw RSR

IMG_20190911_103711495aw RSR

For bicycling and night activities, I incorporated some reflective elements.  I used reflective fabric for ‘hem tape’ on the sleeves.  At night, the hem can be flipped out for visibility.  There’s also a reflective covered button for the back closure.

A few more comments on the Orla pattern:  (I’ll definitely make more ‘Orlas’.)

  • The pattern size measurements ran true-to-large.  I’m so used to pattern measurements not working out, that I decided to make a larger size than the pattern info indicated.  Well, the pattern measurements were right on this time.  On the first fitting, the blouse was way too roomy.  I ended up taking it in two whole sizes, and could have gone down a third size.
  • The front curved darts are a pretty feature, and were easy to sew.  But they became a challenge when I had to downsize the garment.

(Ghastly lighting in this new selfie spot! Yikes!)

disgust when you get that text GIF by Barstool Sports

This picture was my inspiration.  I saw it in a Liberty of London ad last year.  Obviously, I didn’t stick close to the image.  I still want to make a top similar to this.  Maybe for Spring.

Lace top print sleeves from Liberty 

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Alterations–creating more room in the bodice of a Lilly Pulitzer dress

It occurred to me recently that as I create bright-colored summer dresses, I’m channeling Lilly Pulitzer in a way.

A couple of my dresses: 

So, I looked up Lilly designs, and sure enough, the cosmic connection is undeniable.  There are some differences; for instance, I almost always put a collar on my dresses, while ‘Lillys’ seem to all be sans-collar.  Lillys are also more shaped.  They have darts in front, back and bust.  I liberally omit darts.

Lilly Pulitzers:

Slim Aarons Pulitzer dresses 1964
More Lilly Pulitzer images here

A Lilly Pulitzer of my own!

Not long after I looked up images of Lillys, there was the real thing hanging on the rack in my fave vintage clothing store; on the half-price rack to boot!  I tried it on.  It was quite snug through the bodice.  When zipped up, it felt like a corset,… but fit otherwise.  There was no way it wasn’t coming home with me.  I’d figure out how to make it fit.

The dress

IMG_20190728_094127758aw RSR

IMG_20190728_094220895aw RSR

Lilly tag aw RSR

The dress is from the Lilly Pulitzer ‘Jubilee’ collection; a limited edition to celebrate her 50th year of the line.  I believe it is from 2009.  (This isn’t vintage, but the store attendant told me they had made an exception for this label and design.  I’m glad they did!)

Cool Lilly details:

Lining.  The outer fabric is a middle-weight woven soft cotton.  The entire dress is lined with white cotton batiste/lawn fabric.  It feels quite comfortable, and drapes nicely.

IMG_20190728_094253217aw RSR

ID tag: When I opened up the lining under the arm, this tiny ‘Lilly’ tag was sewn into the seam allowance.  I’m guessing it is to help ID a counterfeit.

IMG_20190727_094127852aw RSR tag

Pockets! (I always intend to add pockets to my dresses, but it doesn’t get done if I’m in a rush to finish the garment.  Then I always intend to go back and add pockets later, but sigh, that doesn’t happen very often. Note to self:  Add pockets.  Every time.)

IMG_20190728_094325753aw RSR

Keyhole back.   It is a nice feature that adds interest but doesn’t require special undergarments.

IMG_20190728_094228795aw RSR

Unique Prints:  All Lilly Pulitzer prints have ‘Lilly’ embedded somewhere in the print.

Lilly in print RSR

This Jubilee Collection print also has ’50th’ embedded in it.

50th in print RSR

And now, the alteration:

To expand the bodice, I had to find some spare fabric in the dress.  The side-seam allowances were normal; not wide enough for expansion.  The hem was narrow.  No excess fabric there.  My solution was to remove two of the ‘flowers’ on each side of the lower edge.

IMG_20190728_094438752aw RSR

Two flower strips straightened out, pressed flat and then sewn together side-by-side, made a 9″ x 2″ strip.  This was plenty wide enough to expand each side of the bodice.  Here is one of the strips:

Strip aw RSR

The strips were used to make a V-shaped inset to the side seams under each arm.

IMG_20190728_094424639aw RSR

Mission accomplished!

The dress now fits comfortably.  Once I’d gotten past the tedious process of unpicking the stitching on the four flowers, the actual altering process was surprisingly quick and smooth.  No frustrations at all.

IMG_20190728_094514693aw RSR

Myrtle the sewing pup-prentice, was dying to help the entire time.  She finally found her role, hiding the ugly stack of paint supplies in my selfie.

IMG_20190728_095145341aw RSR

Dog calming vest for fireworks season

The brand name is ‘Thundershirt‘.  It is a tried and true device for calming dogs who fear thunder and fireworks, by creating a swaddling effect.

[Picture from the Thundershirt website.]

ThunderShirt for Dogs

I may end up buying the authentic Thundershirt for Myrtle (or one of the smorgasbord of other brands now available on Amazon, such as this one called Mellow Shirt“).

But first I want to see if Myrtle needs it and if it will calm her during fireworks season.  We’ve had three nights of fireworks in the neighborhood so far.  The first night, she was visibly agitated, even in the house when I was with her, trying to comfort her.  She was startled and barked at every boom.

So, I’ve mocked up a DIY compression vest for her.   The first mock up is made of terry cloth, to be soft and cool.

Vest Floor 2 w RSR

The next mock up will be all or part netting, and stretchier:

Netting w RSR

While wearing the terrycloth vest, she immediately began sitting and laying down more, while not showing signs that the vest bothers her.

Sitting w RSR

Napping w RSR

Watchdog 2 w RSR

However, the real test hasn’t occurred yet.  The fireworks have been quiet in our ‘hood since that first night.

I’ll be watching and tweaking the vests all week, hoping that by July 4th, we’ll have something that keeps her from being frightened.

The vest has not taken away her energy, and by that I mean her desire to play with the baby robins in the neighbor’s tree.

Fourth of July tips from our humane society:

Fourth of July pet tips from KHS

And from the totally awesome The Oatmeal:

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