This August we are delighted to welcome artist Emma Cassidy to Westmeath Libraries for workshops on Irish Crochet Lace. To whet your appetite before these events Emma has kindly written the following introduction to Irish Crochet Lace.
Written by Emma Cassidy
It is said that Nano Nagle brought the technique from France, having been educated there, in the late 1700s to her convent, and it was primarily a craft within convents for a while. It was a less costly and easier way to make lace that imitated the expensive Venetian lace of the day.
It took on a life of its own within a few years. During The Great Famine, the technique was more widely taught to women in households as a way to provide an income for the family, sometimes the only income. In an individual household, they would work to make many of a single kind of motif, which they would then sell on to a sort of broker, who would bring together the motifs of many households to create garments, adornings and household items by joining those motifs on a crocheted mesh or net. Small pieces such as collars and cuffs were common, as were tablecloths, baby clothes, and even wedding dresses (as popularised by Queen Victoria), also simple items like a plain handkerchief, tablecloth or towel were adorned with this lace attached as an edging. After World War I, demand for Irish Crochet Lace (and other Irish Laces) declined with the rise of cheaper machine produced laces and changing fashions.
Traditionally, Irish linen thread (made in Ireland with Irish grown flax) and unmercerised cotton threads were used. These would have been undyed and unbleached, with a colour close to a cream/beige/ecru. Commonly, a hook would be fashioned from a sewing needle stuck into a cork, with a small part of the eye removed. This was a cheap and easily accessible item for most households, using common materials and a little bit of Irish ingenuity. It would not have been easy to find crochet hooks, and perhaps they would not have been particularly affordable during that era of Irish history.
There was a brief revival in the 1960s when designers used crochet pieces in their line. In the 1980s in Ireland, a small but growing interest began to arise in Irish Crochet Lace as a hobby, and the likes of The Irish Guild of Lacemakers, the ICA and small local museums in prominent lace areas continue to keep the various Irish laces styles alive, though it has never regained the widespread production it once had. One reason for this might be that it is not possible to mechanise the process of crocheting, unlike knitting, and thus for Irish Crochet Lace mass production is a very expensive, labour-intensive undertaking.
Some old pattern books (over 100 years old) are available digitally online from sources such as openlibrary.org. These patterns are written in some very familiar and some wildly obscure terms, although many books have very clear explanations and illustrations of how to do all the stitches they use. This can make it easier for the modern crocheter to translate the patterns into more familiar terms for themselves. Modern pattern books use mainly modern terms, although there are some from the 1980s which are direct reproductions of books from the 1900s or so.
It is now very cheap and easy to get a set of steel crochet hooks for crochet lace, from local/national shops, and from a myriad of the usual online sources. Mercerised cotton crochet threads are also easily available in many colours from reputable yarn producers, at a reasonable cost. It can be a little more difficult to source either linen thread or unmercerised cotton thread, though if you look hard enough online, they are available.
This workshop will provide the materials and instruction to get you started on your Irish Crochet Lace journey, producing a motif over 3 hours, and with materials to bring home to continue. Unfortunately, it is not suited to complete beginners, but if you have a knowledge of how to crochet the basic stitches in either UK or US terms, and have made any kind of crocheted item before, then you will be able to follow along with this workshop.