In rural Ireland from the nineteenth century cottage craft ‘industries’ were often used to supplement the home’s income from farming. There were two categories of crafts: products made for home use and goods made for sale or export. Crafted items made for the home included baskets, knitted goods, rush-work, minor tweed products, and patchwork quilts – these were items that were regarded as chiefly functional. The crafts produced for sale or export included lace and linen – these were regarded as luxury items and boasted great international reputations. However, the products were seldom enjoyed by their makers themselves. This article focuses on these luxury products made in humble Irish cottages.
By the nineteenth century, handmade Irish lace had become high-demand throughout Europe and America as a luxury product. Such cottage industries had evolved from philanthropy and the efforts of those who wished to ‘help the Irish poor help themselves’. Wealthy and socially connected women like the Marchioness of Londonderry and Countess of Aberdeen helped such industries enormously. Similarly, Catholic nuns and religious orders (such as Quakers) were involved, as were some individual enterprises that sought to profit. Schools were set up across Ireland to educate young girls in lacemaking.
Handmade Irish lace had a supreme reputation internationally for a time. There was a huge variety of lace styles from all over Ireland, many named after their place of origin. Some were distinctive and easily recognisable. Kenmare lace was a fine delicate needlepoint lace; Carrickmacross an intricate type of ‘appliqué’ lace; Mountmellick lace involved white cotton thread embroidered on white satin. Limerick lace was renowned for its daintiness, using a combination of ‘tambour and run’. Ardee lace was made by ‘tatting’, consisting of an intricate system of knots tied in circles using a tattle shuttle and thread. Youghal lace was influenced by Italian needle lace. A generic style of lace known as ‘Irish crochet’ was also popular, utilising thicker threads. Even to the untrained eye, the distinctiveness of each style is apparent. Clones lace was introduced as a Famine relief measure in 1847, a fact which poignantly reflects how dependent some of the poor producers were on the craft for income. Irish lace often used shamrocks and harps and other Irish motifs as design features. Celtic knot work and chrysanthemums were also popular patterns.
Lacemaking supplemented the household income of many families and was usually practised by women, for example, unmarried daughters or housewives. Having a lace maker in the family meant that money could be saved for expensive outlays, such as helping other family members to emigrate to better lives abroad. In cottages and homes where lace was made the cleanliness of the surroundings became all-important. In the homes of lacemakers, the underside of thatched roofs were closed in to protect against dust and debris falling onto the all-important product for example. Good light was also crucial to the lace maker, and oil lamps were invested in and windows in homes were made larger in order to assist the crafter.
The making of lace was criticised by some at the time as ‘interference’ in nineteenth-century domestic Ireland. The reality was the some of the poorest of the population were producing luxury products for the wealthy. Many workers were open to exploitation. There remains an uncertainty over the ‘philanthropic’ nature of these industries and whether they were fair to workers. Irish lacemaking as a countrywide craft industry had problems with bad management. Additionally, the majority of makers lacked education in art or drawing, thus were limited when it came to the design of their own styles. In the early twentieth century, machine lace replaced the need for handicraft, but by this time lace was falling out of general fashion and the Irish lace cottage industry went into rapid decline. However, the distinctive patterns of Irish lace are ripe for a broader revival, and lend the subtext of Irishness to any contemporary design.
Recent contemporary arts projects such as Hybrid: Limerick Lace Liminal Identity exhibition and conference (2016) represent a revival of interest in the topic. This event saw the Polish artist NeSpoon create a temporary web-like artwork paying homage to Limerick lace in the city, which was a truly stunning and innovative take on a worthy Irish craft tradition. Hopefully other contemporary designers will be inspired in a similar way by lace and other Irish craft traditions and incorporate them into forward thinking and innovative art and design.
‘The Lacemaker’ by Vasily Andreevich Tropinin (1776 –1857)
Nespoon, picture by Alan Place (2016).
Guild of Irish Lacemakers
Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland
Heritage Council of Ireland PDF on Irish Lace FREE to download below: