The Irish tradition of lace making staggers the imagination. It includes crocheted lace with picots and flower forms, Youghal needle lace with the design outlined in couching stitches using fine thread, Inishmacsaint needle lace with a raised three-dimensional effect, Carrickmacross lace of applique and cutwork worked over netting, and Limerick lace created with chain stitches done with a tambour hook and darning stitches. This was not needlework for the faint of heart. It took a great deal of time, infinite skill, keen eyesight, fine dexterity and great patience to create. Its beauty was legendary in decades past and sought after by ladies of all walks of life who wished to be fashionable and to wear gorgeous handmade clothing.
In 1912 Irish lace jabots, cuffs, collars and frills had become so popular with American women it prompted an investigator from the National Child Labor Committee to trace the origins of the lace. A story about the investigator’s findings was published in the May 18, 1912, edition of The New York Times.
According to the story, Irish lace made in New York City, was not created by the Irish. It was fashioned by Italian immigrant women and girls who worked from original Irish patterns and incorporated traditional Irish motifs such as the rose and the shamrock, often used in Irish crochet lace. The reporter said it was “real Irish lace” even though Irish people had nothing to do with it — in New York City, anyway.
The newspaper article does not say what type of Irish lace the Italian women were creating, but it may have been Irish crochet lace since the investigator is quoted as saying that thousands of yards of lace were being made. Other types of Irish lace were more labor-intensive than Irish crochet and would take a great deal of time to make a yard — therefore, much longer to realize any monetary gain from the work.
The Italian makers of Irish lace lived in tenements and endured the poverty common to immigrants, and especially women, of that era.
The investigator reported that Italian lace makers, women and children, were paid about 5 cents an hour and earned $1 to $4 each week, with $2.50 the average.
The investigator was unable to determine how many women and children were involved in lace making, the Times reported, because there were no factories that made the lace. It was all done by hand at home.
The investigator bought for 50 cents an Irish lace collar made by an Italian woman that had taken 10 hours to make.
Without question, paying Italian immigrant women a pittance to make the lace was a low point in the history of needlework. No doubt, the workers were exploited, paid next to nothing for their work and the fact that children were engaged in the trade most likely violated existing child labor laws. Still, lace making probably eased some of the economic stress they endured.
Such employment, however, contained one small blessing — a means by which Irish lace-making technique was preserved and passed on to another generation.
Irish lace also was made in France, Italy, Germany and Japan, according to a March 19, 1912, article in The New York Times.
Intricate lace making is still being done in Ireland. Visit these Web sites to learn more:
Those interested in crocheting Irish lace will find pattern books available from Dover Publications at www.doverpublications.com or ask your local bookseller about what’s available and order that way.
Visit www.nytimes.com to access an archive where the 1912 article may be found.
ä Given the wretched state of the economy, I’m curious to know whether readers are planning to make gifts to give to loved ones during the coming holiday season. If so, I’d like to hear from you.
ä The Bangor Area Sewing Guild is offering a class on quilt borders and binding to be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, at the Hampden Municipal Building. Teacher Kathy Childs said the class would benefit those who want to put a little something extra in their quilting or clothing projects. The cost is $10 guild members, $15 others. Call Childs at 941-8815 to register or for more information.
ä Irish crochet lace patterns are available for free at www.crochetpatterncentral.com. Also consult your local librarian for books about Irish crochet.
ä For a crochet pattern for a yarn ball tote that looks like an acorn, visit www.craftzine.com.
ä Visit www.classicelite.com for a pattern for tiny knitted socks. These little lovelies are suitable for decking the halls during the Christmas season.
ä In her Notions column, editor Jeane Hutchins reports in the current issue of Piecework magazine this fascinating fact: Six of China’s women Olympics gold medal winners in weightlifting and pistol shooting do cross-stitch embroidery when they aren’t training. The magazine also contains an article about antique Chinese embroidery.