Ireland – The Lace Place
A love of lace is woven into the fabric of Irish life.
Perhaps my favorite possession is my mother’s trousseau chest.
Treasure chest is more apt since it’s filled with heirloom linens. Sheets and pillowcases embroidered by my grandmother whose work was so fine that the front and back are almost identical. Mother’s wedding gown and veil.
Crocheted bedcovers with intricate flower and butterfly designs; lace-edged tea towels and bureau scarves; doilies that adorned our sofa, armchairs, and serving trays; an Irish linen cloth and napkin set that only graced our dining table on very special occasions.
A love of cloth embellished with lace is woven into the fabric of Irish life. Its history can be traced to macramé fringe worn in 800 B.C. In the heroic tales, Cuchulain’s wife, Emer, was renowned for her needle skills. Saint Patrick’s retinue included three adept needleworkers. In the 11th and 12th centuries, knotted nets kept hairstyles tidy. Europe’s 16th century royalty wore gold and silver lace made by Irish men! In fact, when white linen thread lace was introduced, Mrs. Richard Barry (Lord Mayoress of Dublin 1601-1611) denounced the fashion saying it looked cheap and could be blown out of shape by the wind. It was so easy to clean, however, that it quickly became the favored adornment of both sexes.
The first record that lacemaking enabled women to augment their meager earnings dates from April 1636 when the Earl of Cork’s estate records noted that a lace maker was paid ten shillings to teach the craft to a “poor serving girl.” In 1655, the government bolstered the new industry by taxing imported lace goods. The Royal Dublin Society encouraged the craft by holding an annual judging and issuing financial awards to those who submitted the finest work.
Initially, lace was hand-crafted using an intricate bobbin system.
Designs were interwoven with fine threads around pins tacked onto paper patterns laid over supporting pillows or bolsters. This “pillow lace” was beautiful but making it was a chore. In 1809, the English inventor John Heathcoat devised a loom that produced fine net yardage, and two new laces emerged: Carrickmacross and Limerick. Though both are worked on a net base, the techniques are different. Carrickmacross lace designs are cut from sheer fabric, appliquéd onto net and decorated with embroidery stitches. Limerick lace is created by weaving fine thread through a “run” of net which produces a more delicate effect.
In 1816, Mrs. Grey Porter, wife of the parish rector in Donaghmoyne (a village east of Carrickmacross, County Monaghan), collected appliqué laces while honeymooning in Italy. After returning home, Mrs. Porter and her handmaid Ann Steadman deduced how to replicate the Italian work. In 1820, they established a lacemaking class so local women could earn income.
While Carrickmacross lace had a philanthropic origin, Limerick lace began as a commercial operation. In 1829, retired clergyman Charles Walker hired 24 women who made “run-lace” and opened a workshop. The center boasted its workers (girls aged eight to 13) received “safe, profitable, and suitable employment, which will remove the indolence of apathy, poverty, misery, wretchedness, and all unfortunate circumstances too long and too fatally entailed on our unemployed peasantry.”
When famine devastated Ireland (1845-48), lacemaking became a widespread cottage industry. No money was needed for tools, and there were thousands of willing workers. Manor house mistresses who had learned lacemaking as part of their genteel upbringing helped their tenants survive by opening lace centers and selling the product to friends and contacts abroad.
During the same period, two other Irish lacemaking techniques emerged. In Youghal, County Cork, Mother Mary Ann Smith of the Presentation Convent purchased a scrap of Venetian needlepoint lace from a peddler. Stitch by stitch, she discerned how it had been made and taught the technique to her students. The fine work required such patience and time that it never became popular, remaining an exclusive product of convent schools.
In Blackrock, County Cork, Ursuline Convent Sisters ornamented altar cloths and priests’ vestments with lacey crochet. When famine struck the area, they shared the skill with their students and the local economy improved. From convent to convent, the art spread south into Kildare where Mrs. W.C. Roberts opened a crochet center from which teachers were sent out to other parts of Ireland.
Isolated families in the mountains around Clones, County Monaghan, were especially hard hit by the Famine. Mrs. Cassandra Hand, wife of the local rector and a savvy business woman, brought in a Kildare teacher.
Using bits of Spanish monastery lace as patterns, they devised a way to reproduce it in crochet. Their designs were so extraordinary that Clones lace designs were registered to protect them from imitation.
Clever needleworkers mastered traditional patterns, then went on to create their own distinctively Irish designs. In stone cottages throughout the land, flashing crochet hooks produced a cascade of shamrocks, roses, Celtic harps, butterflies, ferns, and wildflowers. Lace schools initiated drawing classes. Art colleges offered lace programs. Irish lace consistently earned top honors at international exhibitions.
At a time when a pair of boots cost 60 cents and a boat trip from Belfast to Liverpool cost $1.25, a small lace skirt insert sold for $18. Ironically, it was Ireland’s poor who provided lace collars and cuffs, table linens and bed covers for society’s wealthiest fashion plates in London, Paris, and New York. Many families saved enough money to buy a milk cow, assemble a daughter’s dowry, or pay for passage to America.
Inevitably, inexpensive machine-made lace eroded the market for pricey hand work. Automation ushered in by the 20th century’s World Wars nearly tolled the art’s death knell. As the lacemakers passed on, designs that had been closely guarded family secrets died as well. Just decades ago, few remembered the craft.
Saint Louis Convent in Carrickmacross took over the region’s lacemaking center in 1888. In the early 1980’s, Martha Hughes founded the first modern Irish lace co-op, and in 1988 the convent formally turned over their lacemaking operation. “The sisters were very emotional at the ceremony,” notes Martha. “They had been guardians of the art for a hundred years, but they knew it was time to pass the responsibility to a new generation that would carry the tradition into the next century. At one point, Sister Dolores confided, ‘You young ones certainly do add a bit of glamour to the lace’.”
A different situation existed in Clones. By 1989, only a few elderly lace makers remembered how to hook, twist, and join thread into intricate Clones patterns. Fearing the skill would be lost, Mamo McDonald, former president of the Irish Countrywoman’s Association, sought help from needlecraft expert Marie Connolly. Since each family had specialized in a single motif, Marie learned to make a rose here, a shamrock there. One by one the designs were recorded: fans, lilies, grapes, vines, Celtic wheels, snowflakes, and starbursts. When an aged villager demonstrated the 13 tricky maneuvers required for the mysterious joining stitch – the Clones Knot – Marie became the first 20th-century woman to master the art. She and Mamo founded the Clones Lace Guild and opened the Cassandra Hand School of Lace Design. All students are encouraged to learn every motif, but most become skilled at only one or two designs, leaving the task of joining pieces to those who have perfected the daunting Clones Knot.
Though most of Ireland’s heritage lace is now in private collections, the art of making Irish lace has been resurrected. The Clones Lace Guild and Carrickmacross Lace Co-op fabricate to order, and Dover Books has reissued vintage pattern and instruction manuals for those who’d like to learn the skill themselves. Thanks to the vision of a few determined women, delicate handkerchiefs, gossamer wedding veils, stunning bedcovers, and magnificent christening gowns are again being passed down to future generations. And exquisite table linens set an elegant stage for traditional Irish hospitality. Sláinte! ♦
On Lughnasa (August 1) the ancient festival honoring Lugh, Celtic patron of the arts, fraughans (a wild fruit similar to American blueberries) cover the hillsides and fraughan cream is a traditional dessert. The brilliant magenta color is a stunning contrast to vanilla ice cream, slices of pound cake, and a snow white linen table cloth.
1 pint blueberries
1 pint whipping cream
Sugar to taste
Place the blueberries in an electric blender and whirl until liquified.
Set aside. In a stainless steel chilled bowl, whip the cream until soft peak form. Add sugar to taste, then fold in the blueberry puree until thoroughly combined. Serve with vanilla ice cream or slices of pound cake.