The origins of Irish Crochet – Kilcullen and Cork.
By Heather C.
Until the nineteenth century lace was a luxury that was available only to the very rich. After the development of fine machine-made net (bobbinet) in England around 1808 the cost of lace fell dramatically. In the most popular, affordable laces, decorative elements were simply embroidered directly onto the net (Coggeshall and Limerick laces), or appliquéd on as motifs of woven fabric (Carrickmacross) or bobbin lace (Brussels and Honiton).

In Ireland, some metal thread lace was made in the eighteenth century by, mainly, Huguenot families around Dublin and attempts had been made to establish bobbin lace making centres but, overall, very little lace was made before bobbinet became available. Then, by using machine-made net instead of the labour-intensive handmade ground, a small but successful cottage industry was set up near Carrickmacross about 1820 and embroidered-net lacemaking on a commercial scale began in Limerick in 1829. The success of these enterprises (and the Scottish Ayrshire whitework embroidery industry which employed 300,000 outworkers in north-east Ireland), led others to look for similar ways to help alleviate widespread hardship. In the second half of the 1840s, in particular, in response to the devastation caused by the worst of Ireland’s many eighteenth and nineteenth century famines, numerous textile-based cottage craft industries were set up by philanthropic women and religious communities. From 1845, one of the ways in which women and girls earned money to help their families survive at home, or emigrate, was through making and selling crocheted textiles. 

In the 1840s, crochet was a new and fashionable craft in Britain, where illustrated books had just begun to extend knowledge of the technique. There is no evidence that any published books were used by Irish makers, who were usually taught in communal groups by experienced makers. It is not known if basic knowledge of how to form crochet stitches came to Ireland from Britain or continental Europe but, undoubtedly, the two places where crochet lace was first made in Ireland derived their first designs, simultaneously and independently, from different sources. One style is closely related to needlelace and the other developed along a separate route, directly from crochet technique. Irish Crochet as we know it today is a mixture of a needlelace variation that developed at Kilcullen, and the experimental type of work devised by makers in County Cork.

In Kilcullen (County Kildare) Mrs Roberts, the wife of the local Church of Ireland minister, taught ‘five poor women’ to crochet and they, ‘of their own ingenuity’, interpreted her pieces of old lace. The women worked out a way of covering cord with crochet stitches to mimic the buttonhole stitch of needlelace. Some of the work of the first makers recreated the look of seventeenth century Venetian raised lace, other work was based on the reticella lace of an even earlier period. Because the first books of Irish Crochet (published at the beginning of the twentieth century), featured a version of the Venetian raised style, and not the less versatile reticella variation, this is what is now accepted as traditional Irish Crochet. 

During the following few years, 28 makers went from Kilcullen, largely by invitation of other clergymen’s wives, to teach the technique to women as far north as Clones and Roslea in Counties Monaghan and Fermanagh and as far south as New Ross in County Wexford. Unfortunately, Mrs Roberts does not say when the first crochet lace was made at Kilcullen but it is known that one of the teachers went to Clones, at Mrs Hand’s invitation, in 1847. 

The oldest dated examples of the Kilcullen style are from Killeshandra in County Cavan, and are part of the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, (1158.1855 & 1159.1855). It appears that the women copied a Spanish needlelace variation of the Venetian gros point original. In Venetian raised lace, cords of varying thickness are covered with close buttonhole stitches to represent, mainly, foliage and ribbons. In the less demanding Spanish interpretation of Venetian raised lace the padded outlining cord is of constant, not varying, diameter. (Many of the Antique of the Week examples show this). 

Crocheting over cord, either to form a motif or to highlight parts of a flat shape, has remained the single most distinctive characteristic of Irish Crochet, and is the Kilcullen makers’ main contribution to the style. A second feature that makes Irish Crochet instantly identifiable is the use of a particular motif, the raised rose. This, surprisingly, did not originate with gros point needlelace or any pre-existing style of lace. Its starting point was crochet technique and its place of origin was in or near County Cork. 

The first dated reference to crochet in Ireland shows that a small amount was made in 1845 by children at the Presentation Convent School in Blackrock, County Cork. Their crochet was very different from the Kilcullen style and was largely long lengths of quickly made edgings and ‘plain’ crochet. As the enterprise expanded, makers in Cork, unlike the Kilcullen women, found they preferred to work a co-operative division of labour system where each section of the task – making motifs, ground, edge, tacking, washing, and so on, was carried out by the person with the most aptitude for the job. In this system the workers who specialised in making motifs found that an ovoid foundation row could become leaf-like; each flower-like circle was, in effect, a miniature doily or ‘roundel’, and open to improvisation (V&A  876.1853 collar and cuffs). Unlike the Kilcullen style where motifs had to be designed in advance of making, Cork work could be altered extemporaneously; in the same way that freeform crochet makers today constantly change designs during the making process. 

The raised areas of the early Cork-style lappet (V&A 1095.1854) are unlike Venetian raised work: there are no outlining covered cords. The raised rose, (of which this is the earliest known positively dated example), appears to be the result of experimenting with 3-dimensional ‘doilies’, repeatedly working groups of stitches into the ‘posts’ of circles instead of into the edge of the previous row. The knots of the thistle motif are an innovation that later, when used to decorate the bars joining motifs, became most closely associated with the Clones area. 

Although makers created unique motifs, it is known that they sometimes interpreted pieces of old lace. It is possible that the imagery of the lappet was influenced by the Honiton lace rose, shamrock and thistle emblems - favourites with lace buyers since their use on Queen Victoria’s wedding clothes in 1840. The connecting ground between the individually made motifs on both the lappet and the collar and cuffs appears to be related to a style of Mechlin lace. 

All lace has some connections to pre-existing styles and techniques and Irish Crochet is no exception; but what is unusual about Irish Crochet’s origins is that a lace that has proved to be of lasting aesthetic significance was initiated by women and girls with no previous design training or experience. How this was possible is examined by:

Castles, H., 2011, Hybrid stitched textile art: contemporary interpretations of mid nineteenth century Irish Crochet lace making, Thesis (PhD), University of Ulster. 

This text, available online until mid October 2012, expands the information in this article, tests the Cork makers’ method of working and shows a contemporary art application. 

How the work developed after the first decade, when the immediate famine crisis that instigated it had passed, deserves a separate article. As does the work made at the start of the twentieth century when Irish Crochet was particularly fashionable in Paris and Vienna. Another could comment on how traditional forms are currently and happily co-existing with colourful, contemporary Eastern European and Russian interpretations.  Are you the person who could write something for this section of the blog on any of these topics, or on any aspect of Irish Crochet with a historical connection?

The information in this account is based on the following primary sources:

Maguire, J.F., 1853, The Industrial Movement in Ireland, As Illustrated by the National Exhibition of 1852, John O’Brien, Cork, "The Female Industrial Movement", pp.183—258. 

Meredith, Mrs [S]., 1865, The Lacemakers: Sketches of Irish Character, with some account of the effort to establish lacemaking in Ireland, Jackson, Walford and Hodder, London.

Lindsey, B. & Biddle, C.H., 1883, Irish Lace. A History of the Industry with Illustrations, n/p., London.

1 comment:

MCatherine said...

Looking forward to trying Irish crochet.