Irish Crochet: From Disaster to Triumph

The year 1845 marked the middle of an era of great upheaval as the Industrial Revolution moved millions from farms to cities. In the United States, that year saw the first appearance of the term manifest destiny, an ideology justifying continuous expansion westward, and the United States Congress passed a bill authorizing the annexation of the independent Republic of Texas. Karl Marx was living in Paris, studying politics and economics in preparation for The Communist Manifesto, to be published three years later. French composer George Bizet completed the opera Carmen, focused on the life of wandering Gypsies. Queen Victoria was twenty-six years old and eight years into her reign of sixty-three years.

In Ireland, 1845 was the year a blight of the potato crop launched the great famine, a horrific event that continued for three years, killing a million people and causing the emigration from Ireland of more than a million more. Much of Ireland’s land had been owned by British aristocrats for more than two hundred years, and absentee landlords reaped the profits but had no further involvement with Ireland or its people. The disaster could have been foretold. An 1841 report by British commission concluded the following:

  • It would be impossible adequately to describe the privations which [the Irish labourer and his family] habitually and silently endure . . . in many districts their only food is the potato, their only beverage water . . . their cabins are seldom a protection against the weather . . . a bed or a blanket is a rare luxury . . . and nearly in all their pig and a manure heap constitute their only property. (The Devon Commission, quoted in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 by Cecil Woodham-Smith, 1962 (affiliate link))

Entirely dependent on a diet of potatoes, and with no other means of earning a living beyond farming, the Irish poor suffered mass starvation as a result of the potato blight. A contemporary writer recorded this description:

  • We can hardly realize the scenes witnessed at pleasant country houses in Ireland when the lawn would be covered with gaunt hungry forms, strong men wasted to a shadow, women with dying children in their arms calling out to the mistress of the house, “Don’t be afraid, ma’am; if you have nothing for us, tell us so and we will go quietly away.” (Irish Homes and Irish Hearts, Fanny Taylor, 1867 (affiliate link))

From this misery was launched the beautiful art form we know today as Irish crochet. In the face of the crisis, educated Irish women, many of them convent nuns, took on the responsibility of alleviating the suffering by training girls in the art of lacemaking. Crochet was one of several laces developed in Ireland during and after the famine; other forms included those based on needle and bobbin laces or tambour embroidery on machine net. Of all these laces, crochet became the most popular and earned the most money for those who learned it.

It is important to recall that crochet was not yet a fully developed craft, having arisen in its modern form less than two decades earlier. Printed patterns of the 1840s reveal a limited repertoire of stitches, patterns, and techniques.

Irish crochet

Clones Lace Fingerless Mitts for a Wedding from the PieceWork special issue Vintage Crochet. Photo by Joe Coca.

Against this background, the unique style that evolved as Irish crochet is even more remarkable. Among the most coveted laces was a sixteenth-century Italian lace known as Gros Point de Venise, which is characterized by large flowers on curved stems outlined in relief by means of cotton threads placed inside them, and surrounded by connecting threads, called brides, adorned with picots. In striving to imitate this lace, Irish crochet workers developed several methods quite unlike conventional crochet, which was worked in continuous rounds or rows. Instead, individual motifs were made and then laid out in pleasing arrangements to be filled in with connecting filigree of lighter lace. To achieve the three-dimensional effect of Venetian laces, stitches were made around padding cord. The connecting “brides” were crocheted and ornamented with crocheted picots. In Clones, the famous “Clones knot” was invented to further heighten the effect. This knot is worked over a length of chain, picking up a thread in front of, then behind the chain, and repeating this many times before drawing the loop on the hook through all those loops. It’s not an easy stitch to execute and shows how skilled some Irish crochet workers were.

Irish crochet

A Clones Lace Collar to Crochet from the May/June 2017 issue of PieceWork. Photo by George Boe.

LOCALIZED LACE DEVELOPS

Over the next decade, schools arose throughout the country where girls were instructed in crochet and other laces. The chief centers were in the towns of Cork and Clones. Typically, girls walked many miles to study in these schools and, once trained, struggled in their tiny huts to make the work and keep it clean. Susanna Meredith, founder of a crochet school in Adelaide, gives a moving account of her experiences in The Lacemakers: Sketches of Irish Character (1865 (affiliate link)), where she made this observation:

  • Among the remarkable attributes of this lace were its localization . . . Stitches settled, pitched, rooted themselves, and they could not be transplanted. The mode of working in one place could not be taught to the girls of another . . . Each place persistently kept its own stitch; in no other neighborhood could the identical turn of the thread, and the exactly similar loop, with equal tension or laxity, be procured; and this peculiarity is common to other laces.

She goes on to say that “crochet was topographic, and described its birthplace with a surprising accuracy. That produced in the boggy districts was full of minute fibrous interlacery . . . while the pieces fabricated in the soft, damp, watery places . . . were overrun with flowers and foliage of the most luxuriant variety.” Some contemporary accounts of crocheters were far from flattering, however. The crocheters were portrayed as uneducated women with no morals, who, with cash on hand earned from their labor, became “Wanton-eyed women standing at their doors, and chattering with anyone who would stop and talk. . . . Godly people held the crochet-worker in horror, and so long as traveling agents bought the work freely, and enabled the demoralized crochet women to thrive, there was no doubt a justification for the outcry made against the vice which seemed to be inseparable from this form of industry” (A Renascence of the Irish Art of Lace Making by Alan Cole, 1888 (affiliate link)). Religious and class politics may have played into this stereotype. Cole was a renowned British lace expert and, in fact, became an important figure in the revival of Irish crochet in its later decades.

Irish crochet

Irish Crochet Cuffs to Make from the July/August 2014 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

DECLINE OF LACE

Ireland emerged gradually from the famine’s devastation, and the lace industries continued, but by the 1860s they were in decline. The benevolent women who fostered them possessed neither the design skills nor the business acumen to compete in a luxury industry against countries such as France, Belgium, and Italy, where the manufacture of handmade laces was far more established. In the 1880s, efforts were made by governmental bodies to pay for lessons in drawing and designing in lacemaking convents and schools. The industry was revived, and trade continued well into the early twentieth century. But by 1904, it had very stiff competition from the French. James Brenan, a prominent art teacher who, among many other achievements, taught design to the lacemakers, writes of the evolution of Irish crochet in French design houses:

  • Maison Lefebure showed beautiful Irish Crochet in 1904 which surpassed the homegrown designs. Musee Galliera showed collars, veils and a baby’s dress in Irish point, Marescot showed bands of guipire with contemporary patterns of camellias and iris. Such work was considered Irish in idiom and continued to excite interest and to be produced . . . [This] brilliantly designed and executed continental work, [is] really under very little obligation to the simpler Irish forms. (J. Brenan, in Ireland: Industrial and Agricultural)
Irish crochet

Christening Bonnet to Irish Crochet from the May/June 2014 issue of PieceWork. Photo by Joe Coca.

Nineteenth-century writers differ greatly in their estimation of Irish crochet, some lauding its beauty and others lamenting its “unmeaning shapes” and random designs. No doubt a great array of varying quality was produced in the several decades during which production continued. Eventually, many patterns developed in Ireland made their way into published booklets, and this specialized form of crochet was taken up by crocheters all over the globe. The contribution of the Irish to crochet is, in any case, beyond doubt. They invented new techniques for creating crochet fabric, and the shaping strategies used in the characteristic flowers and leaves are deeply embedded in the vocabulary of stitches and forms we have used ever since. They showed how truly malleable and sculptural crochet could be, opening a path that would later be followed by freeform crocheters and fine artists. Although practiced only minimally in Ireland today, the style has enjoyed a notable renaissance in the Ukraine, where the needle arts are revered and still taught by one generation to the next. This new Irish crochet is colorful, less intricate than its earlier counterpart, and highly appealing, with skilled practitioners showing their work on social media and attracting new devotees to the art. The story of Irish crochet, with its sad origins and tenuous triumphs, is still unfolding.

Irish crochet

Irish Crochet Cami from the PieceWork special issue Vintage Crochet. Photo by Joe Coca.

—Dora Ohrenstein

Excerpted from Interweave Crochet Fall 2016.

Featured Image: Clones Lace Piece by Máire Treanor CREDIT: Harper Point Photography


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