Miroslava Mihalkova and Margaret Kavanagh
[mashshare]

How Irish women saved their country with crochet!

Irish Crochet History

How much do you know about how Irish Crochet came about? As crocheters, we generally don’t focus on crochet’s history and origins. Often, we pick up hooks and yarn and instead we jump right in. We see a beautiful blanket or a hat and are eager to learn the craft.

Maybe we come across different crochet styles associated with particular places, such as Tunisian, Bavarian, Bosnian, Japanese, or Irish. Then we wonder, “How are these places related to the type of stitches or a technique?” Even more intriguing, “How have these crochet styles stood the test of time and persisted to the present day?”

What do we know?

Unfortunately, we don’t have vital historical records for most of these techniques. We don't have information showing how they travelled through space and time and made their way through history to modern times. But perhaps there is an exception in the Irish Crochet style. The story of how Irish Crochet originated, thrived, and survived is a very exciting one, so buckle up!

Close up view of Irish Crochet lace

Irish crochet lace, 19th century. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

How it all began

The origin of Irish Crochet dates back to the mid-1800s. The credit goes to Mademoiselle Riego de Blanchardiere, who had Franco-Spanish and Irish ancestry. She invented a method of making lace that looked similar to Venetian needlepoint lace but used a crochet hook.

Until this time, lace was considered a luxury item. It was only available to the very affluent due to the way it was produced.

The technique was later brought to Ireland by Ursuline nuns from France. Nowadays, most crocheters enjoy the craft as a favourite way to relax and pass the time. However, at that time, the primary reason for the development and refinement of Irish Crochet was to earn income.

Venetian Needlepoint lace edging dated to 1660

Venetian Needlepoint lace edging, 1660. Photo courtesy https://www.laceforstudy.org.uk/.

How Irish Crochet lace was made

Irish Crochet lace was traditionally worked using a fine steel crochet hook and fine crochet linen, cotton, or silk thread. That thread was sometimes as thin as today’s sewing thread. Using a crochet hook to make lace (rather than by needlepoint) cut production time down from about 200 to 20 hours for a 7-inch piece of lace.

Irish Crochet was worked in individual small pieces called motifs. Or in “bits” such as flowers, leaves such as shamrocks, and grape clusters. They were assembled on a network of mesh in a freeform manner. The mesh was formed by chain stitches and decorated with picots or Clones knots.

Some lace makers packed the motifs closely together, while others preferred to space them widely with plenty of mesh in between.

This way of making the lace further increased manufacturing efficiency. It allowed for a division of labour, where workers chose which aspect they specialised in according to their skills. Often, individual families had their own signature motif, the making of which was a guarded secret.

Irish Crochet motifs worked together

Left: Motifs laid out on a pattern. Right: Motifs joined with size 80 thread in Clones Knots. (Image courtesy of IrishCrochetTogether.blogspot.com)

Women and crochet saved the nation

During the next few years, the craft spread widely. Skilled workers’ shared invitations to teach women in neighbouring towns in communal groups.

Philanthropic women and religious communities started similar cottage-based industries. This helped to alleviate the famines’ devastating impact on the whole population. The famines resulted in a quarter of the Irish population either starving or immigrating over just 10 years.

But crocheting textiles enabled many women and girls to make enough money to help their families survive the famine.

By 1847, 12,000 to 20,000 girls and women made a living from Irish Crochet. This was in and around Cork in Southern Ireland, with a second production centre in Clones in the North.

Workers received raw materials; they produced individual components at home and brought these to lacemaking centres in town. They were arranged and crocheted together to make items such as collars, bodices, coats, dresses, and trimmings.

Irish Crochet Dress

Irish Crochet Dress circa 1910. Photo courtesy of http://irishcrochettogether.blogspot.com/. Originally listed at AntiqueDress.com.

And it didn't stop in Ireland

The popularity of Irish Crochet lace increased further when Queen Victoria promoted the lace at an art exposition in London. The Irish lace was bought, distributed, and had much popularity in major cities, such as Paris, London, Dublin, Rome, New York, and San Francisco.

The demand fluctuated until World War I when it was primarily replaced by machine-made lace. This mass-produced lace was inexpensive and freely available.

Irish Crochet lace collar

Vintage Irish Crochet collar made between 1888 and 1900. Courtesy of RovingCrafters.com.

Irish Crochet in modern times

The craft very nearly did not stand the test of time. If not for Maire Treanor, who learnt the technique in the late 1980s from local women living in the Clones area, It might have been lost.

Maire worked as a development officer for Irish World. She set up an employment project in Clones, teaching Clones Lace to men and women. These workers made the lace as their ancestors did. They created individual motifs that were then put together by a master lacemaker. The final products were widely distributed to specialised shops around the world, but mainly to the US.

Maire also went on to teach Irish Crochet in summer school in a local teashop and also internationally. She wrote a book about the Clones Lace aimed at beginners.

Maire’s story is, however, not the end, but just the beginning. Thanks to technological advancement in recent decades, there is now a wealth of resources about Irish Crochet at our fingertips. There are patterns and online courses available to anyone and everyone willing to learn this beautiful crochet technique.

Have I convinced you to give it a go?

~ Miroslava

 

Sources:

https://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2005-04-19/article/21207?headline=The-Art-That-Saved-the-Irish-From-Starvation-By-ZELDA-BRONSTEIN—Special-to-the-Planet

http://irishcrochettogether.blogspot.com/p/history.html

https://rovingcrafters.com/2016/04/21/free-resources-to-get-you-started-making-irish-crochet-lace/

https://cloneslace.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/about-me-maire-treanor/

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I love this foray into the history of Irish Crochet! And while reading Miroslava's article, I did a bit of looking around myself and was really pleased to find that the art has continued! If you'd like to learn it and experiment with patterns on your own, you may want to check out groups like Ravelry's Irish Crochet Lovers and others.

 

Vintage Irish Crochet Opera Bag and book

Vintage Irish Crochet opera bag and the original bag in a Priscilla Irish Crochet Book. (The early 1900s.) Photo courtesy of http://irishcrochettogether.blogspot.com/.

Irish Crochet Evening Bag pattern

A modern pattern for a similar bag is available on Ravelry. It's the Rings and Roses Irish Crochet Purse by CrochetnBeads.

Gorgeous! ~Margaret

 

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Author Info

Miroslava Mihalkova
Miroslava Mihalkova
[email protected] | Website | + posts

Miroslava is a UK based designer, where she lives with her husband and three children. She picked up a hook some five years ago and it is not an understatement to say that she did not put it down since. If she is not crocheting, she is certainly thinking of a new design. She loves to learn new stitches and techniques, so her crochet book collection and yarn stash are ever-growing.

Blog Manager & Columnist Coordinator at | + posts

I've been crocheting since my mother taught me as a little girl. I'm lucky to be working with Happily Hooked and I can't wait to share everything yarny and hooky with you! Yarn over, peeps! Yarn over!

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