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Apron maker shows there’s sew much more to life

Mary Jane Nagan
Mary Jane Nagan

Gingerbread. Easter Basket. Pansy Parade. They sound like some sort of throat-burning Martha Stewart Living fragrances. But these sweet little aprons (yes, aprons!) are the furthest things from Martha Stewart and her annoyingly perfect cream puffs.

The vintage-inspired garments by Mary Jane Nagan (of Mary Jane’s Handmades) are decorated with buttons as big and innocent as Margaret Keane eyes. They come outlined in delicate rickrack and adorned with pockets for storing away treasures. They’re cut from beautiful and classic fabrics — splashed with baby strawberries and pears — that whisper secrets of the past.

And unlike Martha’s wares, Nagan’s are made with nearly a century’s worth of reverence for artistry and craftsmanship.

That’s because the 90-year-old Nagan has been an artist nearly her entire life. This weekend, fans of vintage can check out her demure designs (retailing for $25 to $30) at the No Coast Craft-O-Rama show, the third-annual winter craft sale at Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis.

Sew much more
For decades, the grandmother of 26 and great-grandmother of five dabbled in everything from pottery to painting to metalworking to Chinese calligraphy. Eight years ago (at the age of 82!), after her husband of 54 years passed away, Nagan went back to school and received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Minnesota. She would travel 2 ½ hours from Outing, Minn., for her classes, crash on her kids’ couches and drive home the next day.

Today, Nagan lives in Northeast Minneapolis, where she helps out at her son’s mail-marketing company by stuffing envelopes. When her fingers aren’t getting paper cuts, they’re delicately crafting aprons. Her creations receive a promotional push from her Web-savvy granddaughter, Meghan Wilker, who sets up shows like the one this weekend and showcases the smocks on craft sites like Etsy. (Full disclosure: Wilker works for Clockwork, the technology company that works with MinnPost. But we couldn’t resist telling this story of how it’s never too late to create.)

An apron from Mary Jane's Handmades.
An apron from Mary Jane’s Handmades.

Don’t call it uniform style
Maybe you’re thinking, “Aprons? For modern and hip women? Isn’t cinching one of those around your waist akin to being swaddled in decades of oppression? Aren’t aprons, well, uniforms of the confined house frau?”

Here’s the thing: These darling dress-defenders aren’t bow-tied symbols of the patriarchy.

Women these days, particularly young women, are embracing and seeking out old emblems of “femininity” like they’re this decade’s pet rocks. Fossil love, meet feminine love. And with apologies to my dear pet-rock Sammy, this trend is way cuter and less dirty.

After all, is donning one of these sweet things and whipping up some vegan muffins any less respectable than, say, jack-hammering a broken sidewalk in coveralls? So, what’s so wrong with doing it in style?

Now, guys, don’t worry. Given the prevalence of high design, your jack-hammering gloves are sure to get gussied up soon.

And if those gloves are made locally by an artist who has spent decades perfecting the craft of self-expression, then maybe you can call them golden. Just don’t expect to hang them next to these works of art.

What: No Coast Craft-o-Rama
When: 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday
Where: Midtown Global Market, Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis
Website: No Coast Craft-o-Rama

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