History Of Irish Lace

The History Of Irish Lace From the destitute poverty that was Ireland in the early to mid-1800s, was born the delicate craft of lace making. Irish lace, world renowned for its simplicity and intricacy, became a source of income for young, poor Irishwomen, especially after the potato famine swept Ireland between 1845 and 1851. The introduction of lace making to Ireland, a country with no indigenous lace making skills until this time, is attributed to both the Ursula nuns and to Mademoiselle Riego de Blanchardiere, the daughter of a Franco-Spanish nobleman and an Irish mother. Whoever deserves the credit for introducing the craft to Ireland, Irish lace was born as an imitation of Venetian needlepoint lace, another lace making technique from Europe, just as beautiful but far more labor intensive.

Irish lace is worked with three different thread weights: a fine thread for the crocheted motifs, a slightly heavier thread used as a foundation cord for the work and sometimes an even finer thread for the background. Irish lace motifs are crocheted individually, using several basic crochet stitches over the heavier foundation thread, to form shapes such as rings, leaves, picots or roses. Once all the desired motifs are finished, they are arranged and sewn onto heavy paper or cloth and the spaces in between the motifs filled in with fine crochet. Once the entire work is finished, it is removed from the paper or cloth background.

Irish lace quickly became a lucrative market in the major cities of the world: Paris, London, Dublin and San Francisco, a major distribution center for the lace until the 1906 earthquake. The simplicity of its construction made it a good candidate for mass production. Individual motifs could be made by the estimated 12,000 to 20,000 young women engaged in this art in and around county Cork in the mid 1800s. Lace making was a true cottage industry, with individual young women working on the motifs in their homes, then bringing them on foot to a central location where they were crocheted together into collars, trimmings, parasols and even entire wedding gowns.

Lace makers quickly deviated from the taught patterns, adapting the simple stitches into their own unique and jealously guarded patterns. Visitors at Irish lace makers homes were stalled at the door until unfinished lace could be hidden from sight for fear of the theft of their designs.

The mass popularity of Irish Lace waxed and waned through the 1800s and into the early 1900s as fashions changed. It enjoyed a brief revival in the 1880s, producing many of the pieces found today in lace museum displays and private collections. The mass production of lace after World War II produced cheaper but less valuable trimmings for the fashion conscious.

Today, true Irish Lace is rare and deeply valued. The Sheelin Antique Irish Lace Museum in Bellanaleck, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland houses a collection of more than 700 exhibits, including the main five types of Irish Lace: Irish Crochet, Youghal Needle Lace, Inishmacsaint Needlelace, Carrickmacross and Limerick.

Alana Morgaine
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