Sewing and Embroidery in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXII....continued

4. Sewing and Embroidery.

Needle and Thread.—The thread used for sewing was generally of wool. In primitive ages fine filaments of gut were often used. The sewing-thread was kept in the form of a clew, or ball, like that for weaving: and women sewed with a needle furnished with a cro or eye as at present.

Two bronze needles

FIG. 189. Two bronze Needles, natural size: in National Museum, Dublin. (From Wilde's Catalogue).

From an early time needles were made of steel, but in primitive ages of bronze. In those days a steel or bronze needle was difficult to make; so that needles were very expensive. For instance, the price of an embroidering needle was an ounce of silver. The word for a needle was snáthat [snawhat], which is still used. Bronze needles are now often found, which, judging from both material and shape, must be of great antiquity.

Dressmaking.—Needlework was most commonly practised in ordinary dressmaking. The old Irish dressmakers were accomplished workers. The sewing on ancient articles of dress found from time to time is generally very neat and uniform, like that on the fur cape mentioned at p. 383, supra, which Mr. Mac Adam describes as "wonderfully beautiful and regular."

Embroidery was also practised as a separate art or trade by women. An embroiderer kept for her work, among other materials, thread of various colours, as well as silver thread, and a special needle. The design or pattern to be embroidered—as we find recorded and described in the Senchus Mór—was drawn and stamped beforehand, by a designer, on a piece of leather, which the embroiderer placed lying before her and imitated with her needle. This curious and interesting record indicates the refinement and carefulness of the old Irish embroiderers. The art of stamping designs on leather, for other purposes as well as for embroidery, was carried to great perfection, as we know from the beautiful specimens of book-covers preserved in our museums (see pp. 10, 239).

It was usual for the most eminent of the Irish saints to have one or more embroiderers in their households, whose chief employment was the making and ornamentation of church robes and vestments. St. Patrick kept three constantly at work. Embroidery was practised in Ireland in pre-Christian times, and was a well-recognised art from the earliest period of legend. We know from many ancient authorities that Irish ladies of the highest rank practised needlework and embroidery as an accomplishment and recreation. For this purpose they spun ornamental thread, which, as well as needles, they constantly carried about in a little ornamental bag,

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