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Irish lace has always been an important part of the Irish needlework tradition. Both needlepoint and Bobbin-laces were made in Ireland before the middle of the eighteenth century, but never, apparently, on a commercial scale. It was promoted by Irish aristocrats such as Lady Arabella Denny, the famous philanthropist, who used social and political connections to support the new industry and promote the sale of Irish lace abroad. Lady Denny, working in connection with the Dublin Society, introduced lace-making into the Dublin workhouses, especially among the children there. It is thought that it was an early form of Crochet, imitating the appearance of Venetian Gros Point, Point de Venise
The skill soon spread beyond Dublin to the poorest parts of the country, and proved a popular means for young women to help support their families. Lace-making required little equipment beyond bobbins and fine cotton or linen thread, and a great deal of patience, so was suitable for remote parts of the country that had little industry and few employment options.
The lace, worn by the wealthiest women across Europe was made by some of the poorest women in Ireland. Lace was a luxury commodity, used to decorate elaborate wedding dresses, christening robes, and church vestments, but it also played a vital part in saving many families from starvation and destitution. Irish lace reflects the social and political changes that took place between 1700 and the present.
Several lace-making schools were established throughout Ireland, with some regions acquiring reputations for high-quality products. Different parts of the country produced distinctive types of lace, and discerning customers would soon learn to ask for Carrickmacross lace (County Monaghan) or Kenmare lace (County Kerry), Youghal lace (County Cork)among others, depending upon their favoured style.Limerick lace (also known as Tambour lace, because of its manner of manufacture) became well known from the 1830s onwards, following the establishment of a lace-making factory in the city by an English businessman, Charles Walker, a native of Oxfordshire, In 1829, he brought over 24 girls to teach lacemaking in Limerick, drawn to the area by the availability of cheap, skilled female labour, and his business thrived: within a few short years his lace factories employed almost 2,000 women and girls.
When times were hard, women had to find ways of supporting their family. This was particularly true during and after the great potato famine of the 1840s. During that time period, most women could do needlework, so it was only a short step to lace-making. Irish Crochet and Tatting travelled particularly well as equipment needed was simple, a ball of cotton and a shuttle for Tatting and simple crochet hook and cotton for Irish Crochet lace.
"Kenmare lace" is a needlepoint Irish lace based on the detached buttonhole stitch. (It is sometimes called needle-lace to distinguish it from canvas needlepoint.) Linen thread was used by nuns to make needlepoint lace. Suitable linen thread is no longer available so today cotton thread is used.
Kenmare needlepoint lace begins with two pieces of cloth. Over this is layered a pattern and a matt contact. Thread is laid over top in the outline of the design and secured with a fine detached buttonhole stitch in a process called "couching". The pattern is filled in by working in from the outline. The tension makes the pattern. How tightly the stitches are pulled determines whether the pattern's stitches are open or tight. When the work is finished, the thread holding down the outline is cut thus releasing the lace from the cloth backing.
"Irish crochet" was originally developed in mid-nineteenth century Ireland as a method of imitating expensive Venetian point laces. Within a few years it was being taught in almost every convent in the country and used part of Famine Relief Schemes. Charity groups sought to revive the economy by teaching crochet lace technique at no charge to anyone willing to learn. This type of lace is characterized by separately crocheted motifs, which were later assembled into a mesh background. Other types of Irish crochet include Rosslea and Clones lace.
Irish Crochet Lace is made with a very fine steel crochet hook and fine crochet cotton or linen thread. It begins with an outline of the pattern on a piece of cloth. Each motif is then crocheted separately, using cotton cord for volume and shaping. The finished motifs are then basted (sewn with a loose stitch for temporary tacking) onto a cloth in the shape of the pattern. The motifs are then joined using chains and picots. When all the motifs have been joined together forming one piece of lace the basting stitch is removed from the back cloth revealing the completed lace.
Irish Crochet Lace, particularly Clones Lace, is experiencing a revival as modern designs are being created by Irish lacemakers as well as others, such as Eastern European, Australian, Asian and North American designers. Máire Treanor organizes the annual Clones Lace Summer School in Clones, County Monaghan, as a gathering place for designers and students wishing to learn and preserve traditional patterns and share innovative ideas.
Other types of Irish Lace
Other types of Irish lace include:
Places to See Irish Lace
- Decorative Arts and History Museum, Dublin http://www.museum.ie/Decorative-Arts-History
- Sheelin Lace Museum, Co. Fermanagh http://www.irishlacemuseum.com
- Mountmellick Museum, Co Laois http://www.mountmellickdevelopment.com/museum.htm
- Carrickmacross Lace Gallery, Co Monaghan http://www.carrickmacrosslace.ie
- Kenmare Lace Museum, Co. Kerry http://www.kenmarelace.ie
- Sonnelitter, Karen (2016). Charity Movements in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: Philanthropy and Improvement. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer. p. 163. ISBN 9781783270682.
- The Heritage Council of Ireland, Irish Lace
- Potter, Dr Matthew (2014). Amazing Lace: A History of the Limerick Lace Industry. Limerick City and County Council. ISBN 9780905700229.
- Nellie o’Cléirig (2003) Hardship and high Living
- Barbra Ballantyne (2007) Early History of Irish Crochet Lace
- Kenmare Literary and Historical Society; (1982) Kenmare Journal
- Dillmont,, Thérèse (1986) [First published 1900]. Masterpieces of Irish Crochet Lace: Techniques, Patterns, Instructions. New York: Dover Publications. p. 3. ISBN 0486250792.
- Máire Treanor (2010) Clones Lace: The Story and Patterns of an Irish Crochet