When you think of the elegant detail of crisp white Irish lace, it is easy to imagine ladies of the past sitting in their well-appointed living rooms relaxing with their craft in the evening. The reality of the origins of Irish lace are far from that image. Instead, imagine hungry, poverty-stricken women determined to care for their children in devastatingly cruel circumstances.
The exquisitely detailed lacemaking styles of Ireland have their roots in the Great Hunger, aka the Potato Famine. While Irish women first began making lace in the 1700s, it bloomed into an industry as a work relief project to help families in danger of starvation.
The Catholic Church and the aristocracy were the two key forces behind the introduction of lacemaking to Ireland as a famine relief project. Both were inspired and influenced by the styles on the Continent. Nuns were focused on christening gowns, and wealthy ladies were more interested in fashions. But once the knowledge of the techniques involved spread, Irish women embraced the craft and made it their own.
Know Your Irish Lace Styles
Lace schools opened all over the country. Some were run by convents of nuns while others were the charitable works of affluent women. Irish lace makers created their own styles and techniques, and different looks flourished in different parts of Ireland. These different styles came to be known by name. Three of the most popular styles were Irish Crochet Lace, Carrickmacross Lace and Limerick Lace.
- Irish Crochet Lace – Women worked laboriously to crochet shamrocks, flowers, leaves and other motifs in fine threads for this style. It was popular among the convent-run lace schools, where nuns who had seen the technique in France introduced it.
- Carrickmacross Lace – This appliqué style actually predates the Famine. It was introduced and developed by the wife of a rector who lived outside Carrickmacross, County Monaghan after she discovered it on a trip to Italy. It is worked on machine-made netting overlaid with fine muslin or cambric fabric. The pattern is stitched in heavy thread, and pieces of the fabric are cut away to reveal the netting.
- Limerick Lace – The city’s first lace factory opened in the 1830s, and it quickly employed thousands of women and girls. This delicate style was embroidered onto very fine net material, similar to Carrickmacross lace. It became extremely popular throughout Europe.
While the beauty of Irish lace might seem at odds from its origin as a famine relief work project at first, think again. What is more beautiful than the steadfast determination to save one’s family? What is more creative than work that can be stopped and started throughout the day, scheduled around other responsibilities such as cooking? Those early pieces of Irish lace were crocheted with a passionate love of life and tremendous hope. We need those qualities now as much as ever.