Made in Munster: Lace-making a labour of love rather than laborious industry

Lacemakers in Limerick want to preserve their unique craft for future generations and hope to gain UNESCO heritage status, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Made in Munster: Lace-making a labour of love rather than laborious industry

Lacemakers in Limerick want to preserve their unique craft for future generations and hope to gain UNESCO heritage status, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

There’s a saying about Limerick Lace: “The people that wore it never made it, and the people that made it never wore it.”

Coveted high-fashion items such as veils, gloves, handkerchiefs, and collars made by Irish lace-makers were a status symbol worn by upper-class ladies in the Victorian era, popularised in part by Queen Victoria’s own collection of Irish lace, including a pair of gloves made in Limerick.

Although the first mechanical lace-making machine was invented in 1768, handmade Irish lace was seen, rightly or wrongly, as an act of philanthropy in England: A way of elevating Irish girls out of poverty by providing them with a respectable form of employment.

For many Limerick families living through the Famine years, it was the only source of income, as male unemployment was rife, and many young women saved their earnings to pay for passage to emigrate to America. But it was also notoriously arduous work that could leave working-class women blind and crippled with posture problems by their late 20s.

And, as the Pennywell Lace makers of Limerick explain, most of the girls who made pieces of such beauty and intricacy that they were fit for a queen would never own a piece of their own handiwork.

Pennywell Lace Makers founders Eileen McCaffrey and Caroline Ahern are joined by regular group members Fidelma Cosgrave and Carmel O’Donnell for a discussion of their craft, which these days is a satisfying and, the ladies explain, therapeutic pastime. But all agree that they’d like to see it stay that way: As a hobby and a labour of love, rather than as an industry.

“It was always expensive, and a status symbol,” says Caroline.

Working-class women wouldn’t own any. The work was so hard. They took in girls to train in the lace school when they were eight or nine, and they worked until they were in their late 20s, and after that, their eyesight was gone. So no, I don’t think it’s a pity it’s not an industry again.

The crafters in the Pennywell Lace Makers group often give their pieces as gifts; so many hours go into producing each piece that it wouldn’t be possible even to charge minimum wage for a small piece of lace.

“Someone did once ask me to make a collar for them and I said no, because I knew if I asked for €100 for it, they’d laugh,” says Caroline. She points out a beautiful dress collar — a popular addition to match with plain-patterned Victorian dresses — that she made to an old pattern gifted from a neighbour in her nineties.

“I don’t normally pay attention to how long things take, but out of curiosity, I timed this piece I did last year: It took 78 hours of work. If you wanted to charge minimum wage for it, it would cost €780.”

There are many regional variations of Irish lace; lace- making industries in Youghal, Borris in Co Carlow, and of course Carrickmacross lace, which saw a revival when it featured on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress in 2011, all thrived for a time after Queen Victoria popularised the craft.

Limerick lace, the ladies explain, comes in two forms: Tambour, which is sewn onto a net stretched onto a frame with a crochet-like hook, and needle run, which is embroidered with a needle onto the net backing. Eileen points out the distinctively Limerick stitches used.

Limerick Lace in the making at the Pennywell Limerick Lace Makers Meeting Picture Brendan Gleeson
Limerick Lace in the making at the Pennywell Limerick Lace Makers Meeting Picture Brendan Gleeson

“Heavy darn, light darn and caraway are all stitches that you see in Limerick Lace,” she says. “This is cobweb, and there’s whipstitch and birdseye. There’s 47 stitches we know of, but up to 100 with variations.”

Eileen and Caroline founded the group in 2013; they had known each other and studied lacemaking briefly together many years earlier but decided to run a class following the media attention brought to Irish lace by the British royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William in 2011.

Now, Eileen says, there’s a waiting list for their courses, which they run twice a year in the Good Shepherd Community Centre in Limerick. They are taught by Veronica Stuart, the Cork woman who has been instrumental in reviving Youghal needlelace.

In July, the group celebrated a quiet triumph: Limerick lace was listed on the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, alongside traditions such as currach building and uilleann piping. Each year, the Government makes one nomination from this list for the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, so the ladies hope their craft will be recognised by Unesco in the future.

As a pastime, lace making is so time consuming that perhaps it’s unsurprising that it frequently attracts retirees. Eileen says she hopes that younger people, and more men, will be shown the skills.

“We feel very strongly that we want to keep the skill alive,” she said.

We had an MA student from the art college come to classes, and we have lecturers from the art college too; they’re younger. That’s my aim: to get younger people to come in and do it. We wanted to get into schools to teach it too and we thought Transition Year might be a good time for young people to try it.

The Pennywell Lace Makers have lent their expertise to a conservation project at Limerick Museum, where they have helped to store delicate pieces of antique lace, and they also run starter classes during Heritage Week each year.

Fidelma is a recent devotee of the craft: She started attending classes three years ago and is working on a large and ambitious veil. As a child, she saw lace makers in former Limerick institution Todd’s Department store and was always keen on other textile crafts like crochet. “I’m not great at it, but I love it,” she says with a smile.

Classmate Carmel won’t let a bit of travel get between her and her craft: She lives in Golden, Co Tipperary, but comes to Limerick for classes with the group. She says the growing awareness that “fast fashion” (clothes made in developing countries and sold so cheap as to be almost considered disposable) comes at a cost could aid a revival in dressmaking in general and highly skilled traditions such as Limerick Lace too.

“In the ‘70s, we all did dressmaking,” she says. “As a child, I could knit and crochet. I got into the Carrickmacross Lace and then I saw Limerick Lace; I’ve been going to classes for about five years now.”

The hobbyist lace makers of today have one huge advantage over their industrial predecessors, Carmel points out: Electric light.

“I find the lace making nearly addictive, but you need very good light,” she says. “They used to work in lamplight and destroy their eyesight. I find the new daylight bulbs excellent.”

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