By Sarah Read
The History of Irish Crochet Lace
Crochet first came to Ireland in the 1700s, in the hands of Ursuline nuns who had learned the technique in France, where it had developed as a shortcut for making Venetian point needle lace. Its characterized raised edges and fine mesh background could be crocheted many times faster than the traditional needle lace and required simple, readily available tools.
The craft of crochet lace remained sealed behind the doors of convents and needlework schools until 1845, when the potato blight struck the country. A quarter of the population starved or immigrated over the course of ten years. Several wealthy women, horrified by the suffering, founded schools and stores where Irish crochet lace making was taught and sold. They marketed it to their friends and family around Europe, creating a trend that helped to support the Irish people.
Soon it had evolved into a cottage industry, where women would work a particular signature motif in quantity and sell the motifs to the schools or stores where other lace workers would join them together into larger pieces. The Irish crochet motifs themselves were often also used as currency for trade at markets for food and other necessities.
Women soon became the primary wage earners for their households, gathering in large groups to make elaborate crocheted lace pieces that supported many families. When Queen Victoria promoted the lace at an arts exposition in London, the fashion took off. Soon the demand became so high that professional dealers took the place of the charities and the business of lace making moved from a resourceful survival skill into an industry.
Crochet lace patterns began to be written and distributed. Irish girls would travel to other parts of the world and teach the lace crochet patterns and techniques to women in areas in desperate need of income.
Many women left their cottages to work in factories in support of war efforts, and their return to the domestic sphere after the war was greatly changed by the industrial advances that had occurred in the meantime. The fashion for handmade lace faded in the 1920s, when machine-made lace became readily available and inexpensive. The craft nearly became extinct, except for a few small dedicated pockets of activity around Ireland.
Then, in 1988 Máire Treanor learned the technique from Mrs. Beggan, who sat and worked her motifs just as her mother and grandmother had done, with her “famine hook”—a sewing needle with the eye broken out, stuck inside a wooden handle. A year after Máire’s visit, Mrs. Beggan passed away. Máire, determined not to let the craft die out, formed a worker’s cooperative.
She taught Irish crochet to groups of men and women who worked just as their predecessors had—making individual special motifs that are then joined together by a master lace maker. To this day, they are working, supplying fine tourist shops in Ireland and around the world with this craft. Máire travels all over the globe teaching workshops, keeping the craft alive.
Irish Crochet Lace Patterns: The Craft
Irish crochet lace is characterized by its finely-worked motifs, often in the forms of flowers, leaves, vines, and butterflies. It’s a garden in lace, worked freeform in many shapes that are then joined together with a mesh background. This mesh is often studded with picots, or, in Clones lace patterns, a subcategory of Irish lace, with the clones knot.
The edges of the Irish crochet motifs are often worked around a thicker cord, giving them a raised edge, and they are often worked in layers that make the piece three-dimensional. Traditionally, lace makers worked with linen, though mercerized cotton has replaced that in modern times. The motifs are usually worked in size 20 or 40 thread, with size 10 thread for the packing cord that is held doubled around the edge, and size 60, 80, or 100 thread for the mesh background.
Several motif patterns are worked many times, and then arranged on a fabric or paper template in the shape of the final project. They are secured to the template, and the mesh is worked between all motifs, chaining from one to the next, until all are joined. The background is then removed, and the final piece is washed and blocked.
Here are a few examples of the beautiful motifs that you can create: