Apron String Music
Josie Kite makes the ties that bind
By Maria Johnson
I’d been looking for a gardener’s vest or apron — something I could use to carry a trowel, pruning shears, gloves, wire, sunscreen, bug spray, water — and maybe a cell phone to call for help when I collapsed under the weight of my beautification equipment.
So when I zipped through the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market on a recent Wednesday morning, a stall with a sign that said “Angel Apron, Etc.” caught my eye.
Actually, the mannequin under the sign got my attention first. It was a torso wearing a string of pearls and an apron made from a snazzy cotton print with an ice cream motif. It was whimsical enough for me to hit the brakes and notice a rack of other boisterous aprons hanging behind it.
“Do you have any gardening aprons? Short ones?” I asked a twinkle-eyed lady in the stall. She was dressed in all shades of purple: lavender hat, grape blouse, amethyst scarf, lilac fingernails.
“Sure, come in here,” she said, inviting me behind the counter.
She reached up to a row of hangers and grabbed two candidates, both of them vinyl numbers not much bigger than mini-skirts.
“See, they have the pockets in front, and you can wash them off. Try them on.”
She offered a mirror.
A few minutes later, I was writing Josie Kite a check for an apron blaring with a bright tropical design.
“That’s a happy one,” she said. “It makes you happy to put it on, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does,” I said.
“They all give you a different feeling,” she went on. “Sometimes when I buy these fabrics, I think, I wonder who I’m making this for? Then they find you, and I know.”
There are no random aprons, customers, or meetings to Josie, who first came to Greensboro in 1973. She came from her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, to visit her sisters, who were then students at N.C. A&T State University.
Josie stayed. She raised her son, Craig Brooks, here. She ran a limousine service. Later, she did marketing for a cigarette company. She traveled a lot, and the stress wore on her. She played tennis to relax.
“If I was stressed out, whoever had stressed me out was that ball. Bam! You understand? That made me feel a whole lot better,” she remembered.
Around 1998, her cousin Ervin Butler asked her to make him an apron. He was 6-3 or 6-4, a tall drink of water, as Josie likes to say. He was also a fisherman, so Josie found some material with fish on it. She made a big apron for Ervin and a tiny one for his grandson E.J.
“I got back to that sewing machine, and it was like I was home,” she said.
Sewing soothed her. She toyed with the idea of leaving her job. Then she met a lady, a numerologist in California, and their conversation tipped the scale.
“You’re supposed to be doing something creative,” the numerologist said.
Josie told her that she’d been making aprons and that she’d dreamed of a name for a business: Angel Aprons.
“‘Take the ‘s’ off, and you’ll be OK,” the woman suggested. “Each apron represents one person.”
Josie took it to heart, the bond between an apron and the person who wears it. She sews a label inside every waistband: “My angel apron.”
“I always say, ‘Thank you for coming in to pick up your apron,’ because that’s what it is,” she said, “There’s a spirit there. Like when you came in here, you had a certain feeling, and that apron chose you. That was your apron.”
Josie makes other items, too, on her retro-colored turquoise sewing machine: tea cozies, pot grabbers, yoga mat bags, and T-shirt quilts among them.
Half of her business comes from special orders.
One customer, an eye surgeon, wanted a custom-made skullcap.
“She said, ‘Can you find me some fabric with eyeballs on it?’ Well, I put it in Google — ‘cotton fabric with eyeballs’— and I found it,” Josie said.
Another woman ordered a stack of pot grabbers covered with moose. She was taking them to a family reunion of her mother’s people, the Mooses.
A carpenter asked Josie to make a denim apron embedded with rare-earth magnets so he could stick screwdrivers, nails and such to the outside. Done.
A woman who welds jewelry brought Josie some purple leather, and Josie fixed her up with a long, protective sheath.
Josie has lots of repeat customers.
Terry Ball, a Greensboro accountant, bought an apron for her granddaughter, Anna Katharine, before she was born. Anna Katharine, now 15, is in her fourth Josie apron. Her second apron is being used as a thunder jacket for the family’s dog.
“People tell me about all kinds of unintended uses,” Josie said, laughing.
“Every apron has a story because every person has a story.”
We talked about the memories tied up in aprons. Josie, who’s the youngest-looking 71-year- old woman you’ll ever see, remembered her mother and grandmother having two aprons: one for cooking and another, fancier one, for putting on after the cooking was done, but before company arrived.
I recalled my grandmother’s apron, which kept dumpling flour off her church dresses and doubled as a hammock for shelled lima beans, pecans and sun-warmed tomatoes.
Josie smiled with recognition. “One day,” she said, “someone might remember me gardening in my funky hibiscus apron.”
“It’s so much more than a piece of fabric wrapped around you. It’s just magical, don’t you think?” OH
Maria Johnson is hardy in USDA to Zones 7 to 13. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.