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Limerick Lace: Hand embroidery on net


Lacemaking is a wonderful, delicate craft that’s been practised in Ireland since the mid-1800s. There are many forms of Irish lace, including Limerick lace, Carrickmacross lace, Youghal lace, crochet lace and bobbin lace. In upcoming issues we will be finding out more about these beautiful types of lace; first up is Limerick lace.

Limerick lace is hand embroidery on to machine made cotton net. This form of lace spun out of the invention of machine-made net in 1808. There are two distinct techniques associated with Limerick lace: tambour and needlerun. Tambour lace uses a circular frame, similar to modern day embroidery hoops. The net is stretched over the frame and threads are drawn through the net with a hook (like a tiny crochet hook). Needlerun lace is created by using a needle to embroider onto the net.

Tambour lace collar courtesy of The Little Lace Museum
Tambour lace collar courtesy of The Little Lace Museum
Needlerun lace collar courtesy of The Little Lace Museum
Needlerun lace collar courtesy of The Little Lace Museum

Within Limerick lace there are a couple of basic stitches, including a runner stitch which outlines the form and a filler stitch, which is used to fill in forms or small areas called ‘caskets’. Limerick lace is known for its floral patterns, and as with most forms of lace in Ireland, pattern inspiration is taken primarily from nature. However, there is a lovely quirky recurring pattern in Limerick lace that avid lace collector and curator of The Little Lace Museum, Chantal Fortune, loves. “Limerick lace typically features floral patterns that are often accompanied by small dots. This polka dot is very characteristic of Limerick lace.”

Known for its delicacy and floral patterns Limerick lace has held a place in Limerick history for almost 200 years. Lacemaker Louise Curran was taught Limerick lace by her grand aunt Annie O’Brien who was from Limerick. It’s this passing on of skills and techniques that the Guild of Irish Lacemakers and the Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland are focused on. Lace has long been seen as an heirloom piece, or an antique, created in the past. Bringing the craft up to date and making it attractive to new makers is a constant challenge. “I joined the guild in order to find out more about lace, its stitches and techniques. What I noticed was the ladies of the guild regularly bring their nieces, daughters, daughters-in-law to meetings, and share their knowledge and passion for this craft,” said Chantal.

Louise takes her influence from Limerick lace and adds her own twist. She creates contemporary lace pieces, the most popular of which are wedding veils and christening gowns. Lace is a time-consuming craft: “It would take about six to eight weeks to make a veil similar to the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding veil, which was based on the Carrickmacross style of lace,” said Louise. According to the Guild of Irish Lacemakers “the amount of work that goes into making Limerick lace is astounding, but the beauty of the finished article is just reward for such dedicated work.”

Contemporary Limerick lace christening gown created by Louise Curran

Interestingly, the origin story of Limerick lace differs from all other Irish laces in that it was a purely commercial enterprise started by an Englishman; other Irish laces were the outcome of the philanthropy of Irish ladies.

The history of Limerick lace is defined by two distinct time periods: 1829-1870 when production mainly took place in dedicated lace factories, and 1880s to current day which is characterised by lacemaking workshops and lacemaking in the home.

During the ‘factory years’ hundreds of women and girls worked in several factories throughout Limerick city. But the industry was hit by the introduction of machine-made lace in Nottingham in the 1860s and it declined rapidly. According to Dr Matthew Potter’s book Amazing Lace, the number of lace makers in Limerick dropped from 760 in 1861 to just 97 in 1891.

But the story of Limerick lace doesn’t end there. Thanks to the efforts of Florence Vere O’Brien it experienced a revival in the 1880s. At the Hybrid lace conference in Limerick at the end of October we heard from Florence Vere O’Brien’s granddaughter Veronica Rowe who read from her grandmother’s diaries. The story goes that Florence arrived into Limerick train station and saw some people selling small bits of lace. Impressed by the good designs (albeit on poor quality material) Florence got in contact with women and girls who had worked in the lace factories. She went on to employ them to make lace for her in their own homes, which she then sold.

Collection of Limerick lace at the Hybrid: Liminal Lace conference

Some years later, in 1893, Florence set up the Limerick Lace School where six young girls were the first students. Once qualified, students of the school typically went on to work for Florence from their homes, or to teach in the school. Florence’s efforts kickstarted renewed interest in Limerick lace and by 1908 it was being made in nine locations in Limerick city, including the Good Shepherd Convent.

During this Limerick lace renaissance, significant amounts of lace were produced and sold worldwide. Products included dresses, christening shawls, ecclesiastical robes as well as smaller items like collars, handkerchiefs and doilies.

Irish lace in general was highly coveted by the fashion-conscious upper class of the time and Limerick lace in particular was worn by thousands of women, including such luminaries as Queen Victoria, US First Lady Edith Roosevelt and Countess Markievicz. It also featured heavily in churches here and abroad.

Limerick lace graffitti
Limerick lace graffitti

Despite its immense popularity, Limerick lace’s fortunes changed after World War II, as a result of changing fashions and falling demand for fineries like lace. In 1990, production ceased at the last lace making centre in Limerick – the Good Shepherd Convent.

Much discussion at the Hybrid lace conference centred around reviving the craft and bringing it back to its prominent place in Limerick’s identity. Indeed this issue of how to market Limerick lace gets a whole chapter in Dr Potter’s Amazing Lace book; for Limerick lace enthusiasts, it’s a critical challenge. For 200 years Limerick lace manufacturing was both the largest in the history of Irish lace and one of the largest industries of any kind to operate in Limerick; at its peak in the early 1850s, between 900 and 1,850 individuals were employed in Limerick city making lace.

Now, a fraction of that number continue to practise this beautiful craft. However, as we discovered at the Hybrid lace conference, this small group are enthusiastic individual lacemakers who are keen to pass on their knowledge to the younger generation through workshops, exhibitions, guild meetings, and events such as the Hybrid: Liminal Lace event.

You can find out more about Limerick lace, and other Irish laces, on the website of the Guild of Irish Lacemakers and the Traditional Lacemakers of Ireland website. You can also read a detailed history of Limerick lace in Dr Matthew Potter’s book Amazing Lace, which is available to buy online here.

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