History of Lace


Irish needlepoint lace began at the Presentation Convent in Youghal, County Cork, where Mother Mary Ann Smith had unpicked some Italian lace in order to learn the technique of making it. She began to teach the local women and a lace school was established. Initially, the lace looked very much like the Italian Laces but, with the help of an excellent designer, the Irish Lace soon developed its own characteristics. The lace was a flat type, without a raised, outlining edge and solid areas of the design were opened up with holes to form diamond shapes which were a feature often found in Venetian laces. The open fillings were in single or double Brussels ground, sometimes decorated with tiny rings, sometimes shamrocks and flowers which were either stylised of naturalistic and the leaves were always serrated, like rose leaves.
Irish point quickly became very popular and was patronised by British Royalty during the Nineteenth Century lace revival. The lace is still made at the Presentation Convent, although in limited quantities, but the quality and standard of work remains very high.
In one of my books there is a photograph of a magnificent court train in Youghal lace worn by Queen Mary in 1911.

The embroidered net industry in Ireland was set up by an Englishman, Charles Walker, who, having married the daughter of a net manufacturer, moved to Limerick from Essex, taking twenty four lace embroiderers with him. Mr. and Mrs. Walker taught the skills to the local Irish who took enthusiastically to the needle running and tambour work and by the 1840's, when the potato famine devastated Ireland, the industry was well established.
Limerick lace gradually spread to other parts of Ireland and the work force employed in its production ran into thousands. Pieces were shown at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and were awarded medals that further boosted demand for the lace. The design was improved in the late Nineteenth Century and there was some experimentation in copying designs from the old Brussel's bobbin and needle laces. New designs for Limerick lace also evolved, often featuring the shamrock, rose or harp but as needlerun lace was being produced in most European lace centres and designs were copied everywhere, it is often difficult to identify an old piece of lace as being made in Ireland. The beauty of Limerick lace is its delicacy and the contrast between the outlines of the design and the filling stitches used within small areas, called 'caskets'.Collar worked in the Limerick style A great many different stitches can be used in this lace but it is sometimes better to restrict a design to just a few.
Workers in the Irish Lace industry always made a sampler so that decisions could be made about the best stitch or stitches for a particular design.

The introduction of Carrickmacross lace into Ireland has been attributed to Mrs. Grey Porter who saw work of this type in Italy whilst on her honeymoon. She taught it to her maid, applying muslin to the newly invented machine made net and a new style of lace was created. As with other Irish laces, it was not fully developed until the potato famine.
The managers of the Bath and Shirley Estates in Carrickmacross village turned an empty house into a lace school and before long there were more schools providing tuition for local women. There was a need for a high standard of work, and this required supervision so various lace centres were set up to control both teachers and the workers. Towards the end of the Century, the nuns were teaching the work from the St. Louis Convent, who made sure that the quality of the lace was maintained. This lace does not wash well and was not, therefore, as popular as Limerick lace but it was in demand for accessories such as fans and parasols, and for collars. There are a number of ladies in the Australian Lace Guild who make Carrickmacross lace but in view of the amount of work involved and the cost of the fine fabric needed for the appliqué, I think I would rather put my time and energy into something that will stand up to a certain amount of wear and tear.

Incidentally, lacemakers were very much in demand as brides because of the additional income they could produce for their husbands.


This is the technique of making fine, knotted net using a needle of shuttle developed from the ancient net making techniques of fishermen. Patterns were darned on the basic silk or linen thread net and lacis, as it is called, was used for dress decoration, for home furnishings and by the church. It was frequently decorated with metal threads and coloured silks and was sometimes used in conjunction with simple cutwork and reticella designs. The importance of lacis is reflected in the number of sixteenth Century pattern books that featured the lace, and the same patterns were reprinted again and again for three hundred years.

Machine Lace

The first knitting machine, invented by the Reverend William Lee in 1598 (which will surprise a lot of people) and intended by him for the production of machine made silk stockings, was not really fully developed until 1758 when there was a commercial need for a net that resembled the bobbin and needle lace grounds.
With constant research, a successful machine was invented and by 1810 there were 18,000 frames in the Nottingham District making a net with an hexagonal mesh. A whole new industry had begun, with 1500 women and children spotting or needle running nets in Nottingham alone. (My father was born in Nottingham so perhaps my love of lace has been passed down to me from his side of the family).

A group of frame lacemakers migrated to Calais from Nottingham but when the industry started to decline they were forced to return to England because of the hostility shown to them by the Calais people. Nottingham had a very large number of lacemakers out of work, and eventually the Calais Lacemaker had no choice but to migrate to Australia. There is a Calais Lacemakers Society in Sydney.

The net was a very stretchy fabric, made of silk threads, but the invention of the warp frame meant that cotton could also be used. This machine combined conventional weaving with the knitting machine technique and instead of a single thread, the machine now had warp threads as on a weaving loom. This was an important break through as John Heathcoat's bobbin net machine could produce net in wider widths than before and was nearer in appearance and feel to the handmade nets. The piece industries began to use it to attach motifs and the terms 'Honiton Applied' and 'Brussels Applied' were used to describe the laces. The scale of the production allowed applied and needlerun laces to be produced comparatively cheaply and embroidered lace was produced in all the lacemaking centres of Europe.

The net making machine was followed by machines that could make good reproductions of almost any type of lace, particularly the bobbin varieties such as chantilly and for the hand made lace industries, the end was in sight. Laces are still made by the old traditional methods throughout the world, but these days with a few exceptions, it is made as a hobby with one person making lace from go to whoa compared with as many as six or seven workers concentrating on different stages of the work.

There are many laces that I have not as yet even touched upon: Russian, Bohemian, tape lace, braid lace, Croatian, Hungarian, etc., so I will have to continue with my research into the History of Lace.

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