A Renascence of the Irish Art of Lace-making

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IN the early days of the art of lace-making, before floating flounces, falling lappets, etc., were invented, when stiff lace borders and insertions were worn as much by men as by women, books of patterns, mostly of a formal and geometric character, were published in Venice, Rome, Antwerp, Cologne, and Paris, and were dedicated, in high-flown phrases, to the "profit and contentment of beautiful and skilful ladies." This was in the sixteenth century. But soon afterwards the art of lace-making gave birth to lighter and more varied expressions. These exacted an application and assiduity impossible for those whose taste and pleasure led them to adorn themselves with, rather than to take part in making, fairylike tissues, the production of which accordingly devolved upon peasant women, girls, and conventual communities, etc.

Under the patronage of wealthy persons, gifted with intelligence in defining their wants, an artistic industry grew up; and in some countries, during the seventeenth century, sympathy with industrial prosperity and development prompted Ministers of State to organise work-centres of lace-makers, and to bring them under the direct influence of distinguished artists, who designed patterns for them. In other countries, it was frequently the kindly disposed lady of the village or parish who would do what she could to encourage peasant women in their endeavours to earn a modest livelihood with their needles, or with their pillows and bobbins. Traders bought and sold the results of the industry, and sometimes lace-makers reaped a good harvest; whilst at others, when repetitions of the same shapes and patterns had satisfied passing demand, the workers would be at their wits' ends for the want of the bare necessities of life. Artistic direction, either by fashionable lace-wearers or clever men of trade, at such time was virtually unknown in England and Ireland. Abroad, in France, the leadership of artistic design is thoroughly understood as of first importance to the successful employment of skilful labour, which by itself is only wasted energy.

In spite of a want of artistic direction, geographical circumstances seem to have been determining factors in the survival of lace-making in Ireland, more so perhaps than in England; and it comes to pass in these days, when perception of the beautiful and dainty might be wider spread than formerly, that Irish lace-making has somehow pressed itself upon public consideration as being a home or cottage industry, in favour of which it is worth while to apply available resources to a development of fine style in its productions.

It is foreign to the purpose of what may be held to be a nineteenth century "Pattern Book" to attempt a history of the rise, progress, and fluctuations of lace-making in Ireland. No special pleading is necessary on behalf of the industry. Its newest productions have inherent vitality to arrest the notice of artistic amateurs of graceful accessories of costume.

A potent influence for good may be wielded by fashion. With many, however, fashion is a sort of blind fetichism—a habit in fact with a number of people of accepting as a standard, something used or proposed for use by a recognised or self-asserted authority. Submissiveness to such a habit undoubtedly tends to frustrate the exercise of personal and independent taste, which is dormant in most people. And yet the life of an artistic industry like lace-making by hand greatly depends upon the influence of cultured individuals, notwithstanding the spasmodic impulses which whim and fickle fashion may give it. It may be well enough to call into employment a number of lace-makers, all producing things much alike, somewhat after the manner of machines; but it is better for refined and independent requirements to instigate the making of artistic laces, each of particular beauty and distinction, and so lead the way. If lace-wearers of to-day were to take a hint from those of two hundred years ago, they would display an intelligence beyond the reach of mere empiricism. Modern taste for, and knowledge of, hand-made laces hardly exist; their place is speciously occupied by something which poses for themó a flippant frothiness of fancy, evoked by miles upon miles of machine weavings called lace, totally different in nature and structure from hand-made laces.

How many are there who can scheme in their minds' eyes the beautiful effects of flowing forms, contrasts of dainty ornamental devices, varieties of textures marvellous as cobwebs, and compositions full of surprises and pleasures, which may be wrought in different sorts of lace, and then take the pains to get their schemes realised? How many are there who shun the excellent diversion and improvement to be enjoyed by learning how to have taste, and how to value productions of artistic craft? How many, indeed, are there not who, under pressure of haste to possess, content themselves with being mindless shapes, to be pranked out according to the draconic laws of the fashion-monger? All of which questions or riddles will have little or no concern for those who take pleasure in seeing what may be achieved by combining art in designs with skill in making laces from them. This is suggestively set forth in this little record of a "Renascence in Irish Lace-making." Enough, perhaps, is given in the following illustrations to show that the Emerald Isle of the United Kingdom can revive, in modern expressions, glories of historic Venetian Points, Italian Cut Works, and Points of Alençon and Argentan.

There are seven different sorts of Irish lace-work, which may be briefly named as follows:

  1. Flat Needlepoint Lace.
  2. Raised Needlepoint Lace.
  3. Embroidery on Net, either of darning or chain-stitch.
  4. Cut Cambric or Linen-work, for patterns in the style of guipure and appliqué Laces.
  5. Drawn Thread-work in the style of Reticella and Italian Cut Points.
  6. Pillow Lace, in imitation of Devonshire Lace.
  7. Crochet.

The products of these different classes of work may be used for articles of costume, trimmings, flounces, handkerchiefs, etc., and for furniture purposesócushion-covers, doyleys, quilts, etc.

Special designs for all sorts of things to be wrought in lace have been produced under the auspices of a Committee formed in 1884; and the illustrations now presented are of a few of the specimens worked from designs belonging to this Committee.

A considerable number of other specimens besides those here shown have been worked from new patterns, and repetitions of them can be produced. Any one desiring to ascertain particulars as to their cost, etc., may obtain the required information by applying direct to the different lace-making centres and convents named.

Further than this, it may be well to say that designs for laces are made at the Crawford Municipal School of Art, Cork, and at some of its branches in Co. Kerry and Co. Cork; also at the School of Art, Waterford, and at the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin. But in ordering a design, the kind of ornamentation wanted should be stated, as well as the class of lace-work in which the design is to be carried out.

A. S. C.

May, 1888.

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