Women of almost every degree in society wore an apron indoors and outdoors. It was a simple functional garment that was sufficiently common to become proverbial: ‘tied to her apron strings’ for example. It protected the more expensive, less easily washed and dried, petticote (or skirt) and also provided a quick, always available cloth on which to wipe your hands. Photo on the right by John Beardsworth.
Status in society seems to have had no bearing on whether you wore one, except in the quality of the aprons worn. Inventories and wills from relatively lowly households suggest that most women had one or more of probably three grades of apron, suited to the task and situation: old ones for messy jobs, (scrub the floor, pick up hot pots, gather eggs etc.), a newer one for normal wear (going to market, meeting the neighbours), and a ‘Holy day’ apron which could have been quite elaborately decorated – the ‘Sunday best’.
The apron was normally linen, wool does not seem to have been used. Linen is easy to wash and dry, whereas wool is not, especially in cold, wet weather. Mary Champian (picture left) will find it much easier to get the blood out of her apron than her petticote. A greasy apron is a potential deathtrap around open fires, so frequent washing was important. For the same reason the speed with which the apron can be torn off if it starts to smoulder/burn is important, so complicated fixings are probably not authentic. Simple apron strings tied behind the back, or even just a couple of brass pins to the petticote could be used (but remember you may need to remove it quickly).
The apron itself should be a linen rectangle wide and long enough to cover most of the front of the petticote. It should be hemmed on all sides, and is easier to clean and press if it will lie as a flat rectangle, so one with permanent gathers at the top is likely to have been considered a nuisance. The apron will lie better if the strings are attached an inch or so in from the edge rather than directly to the corners. It is possible that some of the ‘gathered’ aprons seen particularly in Dutch paintings (see right) reflect an apron-string passing through the upper hem rather like a curtain on a cord. Remember that more material than was absolutely needed served no useful purpose, but pushed up the cost.
Linen in the seventeenth century could be bleached white with exposure to the sun but would never become as white as that achieved using modern detergents. It’s much safer to pick an off white shade, especially if you intend to portray a common person.
Holy day aprons were probably normally decorated in some way appropriate to your social station. Simple applied decoration inside the edge is possible; in other cases a grid pattern of horizontal and vertical ribbons or tapes (or perhaps even something woven into the fabric); drawn thread work may also have been used. This was for special occasions so the apron was carefully preserved and protected. It is unlikely that such aprons would have been used around a soldier's camp except for church service or a wedding.
So to summarise:
All women wore aprons as part of normal everyday daytime clothing.
Wealthier women wore an apron, although theirs were of finer quality.
They probably had more than one apron.
The simplest apron is a flat rectangle of linen, plainly hemmed, covering the front of your petticoats but not wrapping round the sides, and reaching from the waist to just above the hem of the petticoat.
Decoration can be added according to your station in life (fancy stitching, drawn thread work, hem-stitching, etc.).
Finer materials and decoration would be for women of higher status gathering at the waist would use more fabric and therefore cost more, so would be another indication of wealth