June Cleaver. Edith Bunker. Your impossibly hip neighbor.
What do all these women share? A love for that most utilitarian of women’s accessories: the apron.
At first glance, that last entry might seem a bit off-base, but with America’s general shift toward retro-chic and a search for the comforts of hearth and home, aprons have jumped off the drawing tables of Project Runway alums, appeared in the pages of the once ennui-heavy Anthropologie catalogue, and been given a sexy make-over by the likes of Kitsch’n Glam. Rather than serve as a simple layer of protection between clothes and soup, these aprons are intended as an expression of the wearer’s sense of self-and, of course, a layer of protection.
If you live near Whittier School, you’re likely to see one on Oak Park’s Kerry Vitali when she gets her kids at the end of the day-the difference is that in Kerry’s case, she’s more than likely to have made it herself. And you may be able to buy its doppelganger.
A longtime seamstress (her first big project was a narrative quilt based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter), Kerry runs a small business creating one-of-a-kind and limited-edition aprons, recently adding purses to her line. By day a graphic designer for a textbook developer, she finds the two jobs answer different needs.
“[Sewing] is very solitary, [graphic design] is very collaborative,” she says, sitting at home, sewing machine to the right, vintage board games to the left. “I need both of those things. I like what I do on the computer, that making order out of chaos that is page layout. My graphic design and my sewing, that’s the through-line: making things that are clean, uncluttered, direct, and yet beautiful.”
Her turn into apron-making, in early 2006, reflects a larger fascination with hand-crafting generally, a love that has manifested itself in a lifetime of thrift-store shopping. “My favorite thing is to find home-sewn items. I just love the idea of someone feeling the same why I do about creating things. There’s something really sacred about the things that people make for themselves.”
Occasionally her finds are repurposed into new products, and the fabrics Kerry uses range from the vintage to the strikingly au-courant (festive skulls, anyone?), the final product invariably accented with painstaking top-stitching or just-right buttons, unless she determines that the fabric is best served unadorned. Some of the aprons look like you might have seen them on Aunt Betty, some of the purses look as if they tell a story unto themselves. Everything is finished beautifully; linings and seams no one will ever see are as lovely as the side you show the world. Finally, all of it is meant to be used, and used again. A large part of the appeal for Kerry is the necessary meeting point of form and function.
Though most of her sales are online (www.practicallynecessary.com or www.etsy.com), Kerry also keeps some stock at the delightfully off-center Lake Street store, Fly Bird.
Owner Julia Nash has a real appreciation for the addition to her shop. “[Her] attention to detail is brilliant, very well thought out, right down to her labels and hang tags. It’s an awesome price point for a handmade, gorgeous apron. Same goes for the bags she’s brought in,” she adds. “They fly out of here. I love giving her the opportunity to show off her super skills to more people.”
Kerry will also take part in the Oak Park Women’s Exchange Annual Holiday and Craft Fair at OPRF High School on Nov. 4. Chairperson Rebecca McGuffey is pleased to have her there, citing Kerry’s “loving attention to detail.”
“The fair is a great chance for Oak Park and the artists to get together and support each other,” she says. “Everyone who comes wants something custom-made and one of a kind”-and that, she says, is just what Kerry provides.
Discussing local friends and cyber-contacts for whom she’s made very personal products, though, it becomes clear that Kerry’s favorite sales are those that meet the needs of specific customers. “I really like there to be an emotional connection if possible,” she smiles. “The online [world] is surprisingly intimate.”
In this way, she also bridges the paradox of her appreciation for people who craft for themselves, and the fact that she’s crafting for others. “I do like to make things for myself,” she says with a grin, “but there are only so many things I can make for myself!”
Asked whether she has dreams of someday going bigger, Kerry hesitates. “I’ve never been able to figure that out,” she finally says.
“I know I don’t want it to take over my life. I just want to see how much time I can carve out for it. I think it can only remain personally satisfying if it remains small.
“It’s pretty gratifying to see that it’s so appreciated.”