Any mention of historic ‘Irish Lace’ is sure to call to mind a picture very much like the one that the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) lace expert, Alan Cole, described in his 1884 ‘Proposal for the Maintenance of the Domestic Industry of Lace-making in Ireland’:
The making of lace in Ireland is a domestic industry, practiced by some hundreds of peasants in their homes, by communities in convents, by children in Industrial and other Schools, and by others. Great skill in the work has been developed since the earlier part of the present century when the industry was introduced to the country through the efforts of Philanthropists.
Alan Cole paints a picture of a rural cottage industry, presided over by philanthropically-minded individuals, but the fact that he is writing this proposal – and may other reports – hints that there is more to this story than first meets the eye. Cole was an employee of the British Government, and his reports were written to be read in Parliament. They discuss government-sponsored competitions, new training schools, policies, reports, and government acts, providing a window into a time when lace in Ireland was tangled up with broader questions about taste, education, autonomy and identity.
I am a PhD candidate working in and between the Departments of Art History, Design, Art Education and Irish Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. My research focuses on one Irish lace designer, Emily Anderson (1858-1948), following her from the new art college in Cork, to the South Kensington Museum in London, to a career in the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland as a ‘Lace Inspectress’. She is not a well-documented historical figure, and I am not intending to write a biography. Rather, Anderson’s involvement with these various institutions draws previously unexplored links between them, and provides a way into thinking about how they all intersected, connected, and sometimes conflicted with each other, and what that might tell us about the relationship between design, education, identity, and politics… with lace as the case study at the centre of it all.
This year, I made an unexpected discovery that led me to investigate yet another player in the Irish lace industry. A distant relative of Anderson’s, now living in British Columbia, kindly shared with me some information about the family, including the fact that Emily’s brother, Robert Anderson, was a long-time secretary of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and key figure in the Irish Co-operative movement. I wondered if Emily may have been involved too, and took a look at co-op reports and the movement’s widely-read magazine, The Irish Homestead. At this point in my research, Emily Anderson seemed only to have been a financial supporter of the co-ops, but the foray into the movement’s history revealed that it was much more intertwined with the Irish lace industry than I had thought.
The Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS) was founded in 1894 by the agrarian reformer and politician Horace Plunkett. It would prove a vital force in shaping Ireland’s rural identity and economy into the 20th century, and still operates today as the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. The organization was meant to promote co-operation in the dairy industry, but grew to encompass many other aspects of rural life and work, including, for a while, cottage industries. In 1897, the IAOS announced a new class of society that would provide employment for rural women whose traditional work in the creamery had been taken away by the larger, co-operative creameries. These collectives of craftspeople – mostly, though not exclusively, women – were known as ‘Home Industries Societies’, and operated on a co-operative model where members paid a small fee to join and participated in the profits.
Many of the Home Industries Societies specialized in lace. Workers in Carrickmacross and Youghal, two towns that gave their names to varieties of lace (appliqué and needle lace respectively), formed co-ops as early as 1898. At the turn of the century, the Home Industries Societies were “almost altogether concerned with the production of lace and crochet.” At the end of the 19th century, Irish lace – particularly the Irish specialties of needlepoint lace, embroidery on net, applique on net, guipure, and crochet – was enjoying a moment of popularity around the world, and no doubt workers were hoping to cash in on the trend.
However, in 1899, the IAOS reported that the Home Industries Societies’ sales were flagging. Their work was lacking in sophistication, and it was having trouble finding its way to a market. Reports suggest that much of the work was done too quickly, with old patterns that were not only out of fashion, but also blurred and degraded by the pin-holes and folds of constant reuse.
Luckily, help was close at hand. The Irish Industries Association, founded in 1886 by the aristocratic philanthropist Ishbel Aberdeen to organize, aid, and promote Irish Home and Cottage Industries, had agreed to assist the IAOS Home Industries Societies in staying abreast of trends and connected to the market. One way that they could do this was by circulating new, high quality lace designs.
And so, the 1900 IAOS annual report announced that: “The Irish Industries Association, as Trustees of the Branchardière Trust, have arranged to furnish the Homestead with lace designs for publication, and have contributed £10 to the cost of blocks [to print the images]. These designs are very useful to the Home Industries Societies.” The Homestead refers to The Irish Homestead, the co-operative movement’s official publication, which was at that time the most widely read agricultural periodical in Ireland. Publishing lace designs here meant that they were incredibly accessible – a flounce designed by the top student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin printed beside recipes for curried rabbit and methods for preserving eggs.
The first design was published in The Irish Homestead on June 9, 1900. The large, crisp image – notable in a sparsely illustrated magazine – was accompanied by a descriptive text and a note that “working drawings, full size, can be obtained from the Secretary, Irish Industries Association, 21 Lincoln Place, Dublin, at a cost of three shillings each.” Though some of the designs were more expensive, most were 3 or 4 shillings – pricey for a piece of paper, perhaps, but really quite affordable given the fact that they guided weeks or even months of work, and in some cases could have been reused. Presumably, the use of these designs also improved quality of work, which would have boosted sales. The IAOS published earnings reports for all of its co-ops, including the Home Industries Societies, and I would be curious to compare the numbers from 1899 to those from 1900-1902, the period when The Irish Homestead published the set of designs. I also wonder if some lace makers cheated the system by simply copying directly from the pages of the magazine. Though it would have been difficult to copy the forms and motifs exactly while also expanding them to the proper size, it wouldn’t have been impossible.
Design I was a ‘Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure’, ten inches deep, and ornamented with ribbons, floral and foliate motifs. The accompanying text, signed J.B., was almost certainly written by James Brenan, onetime Headmaster at the Cork School of Art, Headmaster at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art and expert on lace design.
Brenan’s comments on this pattern, and on the forty-five other designs published between June 1900 and November 1902, are a window into the mind of a turn of the century Irish lace designer, and, to a certain extent, maker. He describes the strengths and weaknesses of the patterns, and points out passages that might be difficult for the lace maker to complete. He discusses the results of lace competitions, and which designs might fetch a higher price at market.
I am particularly interested in how he describes what ‘good lace’ looks like like. It can be difficult for me to understand what would have been attractive to a nineteenth or early-twentieth-century lace connoisseur. But Brenan’s commentary describes these features great detail. Of the first design, he writes: “the design has good construction and drawing, and possesses evenness of distribution, three important necessities in every design.”
The balance between evenness and variety is particularly important. Though it appears to be symmetrical, the pattern is in fact slightly different on each side of the vertical line around which it is constructed; “the two sides will be seen to balance carefully, without being an exact repetition of each other.” The designer alternates full views of the flowers with three quarter views, and uses odd numbered groups of motifs; “odd numbers compose better, as a rule, than even numbers.”
Another design in Carrickmacross Guipure received almost the same commentary a couple of months later. Though the designs are quite different, Brenan commends the designer of the border, who “very properly made the two sides of the pattern to balance, without insisting on absolute symmetry, or, as it were, turning over the pattern to form each side; to do this would result in a mechanical appearance, which would ill accord with the characteristics of Carrickmacross lace.” In this article. Brenan also notes that the designs have been enthusiastically received by lace makers, and that “numerous workers throughout the country are applying to the Secretary for full-size drawings”.
‘Good design’ does not always look the same across the varieties of lace, because different materials and methods offer different opportunities and challenges. No. XIII, ‘Design for a Crochet Border,’ is commended for its simplicity and the ease with which it could be copied. Brenan points out the small circular motifs that the designer has incorporated into the sweeping curves of vine on either side of the central flower. Long, sinuous curves are difficult to render in crochet, as they are likely to be pulled in one direction or another by even the slightest change in tension, resulting in more of a zig-zag than a curve! However, the circles would disguise any wavering in the vine, making it easier to faithfully replicate the design even without perfect tension.
The IAOS had specified that: “the designs also should have certain common characteristics, which are necessary if the work is to be marketed as a definitely national product, and for this, if no other reason, it is better that the designs should come from one source with the best available inventive talent to create or guide in the designs.” They, and other proponents of Irish lace, hoped that quality of design, but also a group of recognizable ‘Irish’ features and motifs, would come to characterize the lace; it was an exercise in branding.
Some common motifs do repeat in the patterns: conventional foliage and curved forms, lots of roses. But the shamrocks, ribbons and harps that I associate with these types of lace as they are made now are scarce. The patterns reflect the Irish lace industry’s origins in producing copies of continental lace; the design published on July 7 is a ‘Border in Innishmacsaint [sic] Raised Needle-point Lace’ which is “a reproduction of the Venetian Rose Point of the seventeenth century.”
Sometimes, the designs featured motifs with origins even further afield. The following week, the design was a ‘Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour)’, and Brenan writes that “the designer has selected as the motif a flower resembling a French marigold. It is a favourite flower of many Persian designs.”
As I continue to go through these designs and their accompanying text, I’m tracking the repetition of motifs and the “common characteristics,” trying to figure out how the designs may have helped to shaped turn of the century Irish lace’s formal attributes. I’m even designing my own lace patterns as a way of thinking through the technical issues they discuss. However, I’m also interested in what James Brenan’s text reveals about the lace industry itself – the relationships between designers, makers, lace sellers, government and art college officials, and tastemakers.
I can see a glimpse of this in the article and image published on November 27, 1900, which leaves me with lots of questions about differences in taste, and the role of worker and designer. No. XVIII, ‘Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,’ was published in The Irish Homestead after it won first prize at the Art Industries Exhibition in late August, 1900 at the Royal Dublin Society. It appears to be the work of Emily Anderson, who had studied drawing, painting and lace design at the Cork (later Crawford) School of Art, and is listed in the Exhibition catalogue as winning a £1 prize for her ‘Deep Flounce or Alb’. Alan Cole, lace expert from the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), judged the competition for lace designs, while James Brenan had judged the lace itself, along with C. Harry Biddle. In the The Irish Homestead, however, Brenan is able to make his own judgement on the design, and he is not impressed.
Though he commends it for “a considerable grace of arrangement,” “sufficiently large” motifs, and “satisfactory” balance (ouch!), Brenan critiques the designer for not paying enough attention to the needs of the worker. Too much of the design is left up to chance: the beaded strings that loop over the vines (how exactly this is supposed to translate into lace is not specified), the scroll along the border (which could not be worked successfully the way it is). However, this concern for the maker might be more accurately described as concern for the lace – Brenan explains that “the question of expense alone precludes the idea of leaving anything in the rendering of the design to the caprice of the worker.” He doesn’t trust that the lace maker is capable of making good stylistic decisions on her own. At the end of the article, he notes that working drawings of the design may be purchased, but that they have “the modifications referred to inserted”.
The designs – and The Irish Homestead itself – were published for the workers, and early reports of their success mentioned members of the co-ops purchasing designs from the Secretary of the Irish Industries Association. Presumably, they did so after reading an article like this. What it would have been like to read this article as a lace maker and member of a Home Industries Society? To what extent were they able to exercise their own designer’s minds in altering and interpreting the working drawings of a lace design like this? I hope that further investigation of these patterns, and comparison with pieces of lace that still exist might help me to begin answering these questions.
 Alan Cole, The Renascence of the Irish Art of Lacemaking (London: Chapman and Hall Ltd., 1888), 37.
 Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1898, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1898), 15.
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 17.
 Irish Agricultural Organization Society, Ltd. Annual Report, 1899, With Appendices (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers and Walker, 1899), 26.
 For more on the fascinating Ishbel Aberdeen and the Irish Industries Association, see Janice Helland’s British and Irish Home Arts and Industries 1880-1914: Marketing Craft, Making Fashion (Irish Academic Press, 2007).
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, from 31st March, 1889 to 31st Decr., 1900 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1901), 24.
 The Irish Homestead 6.1 June 9, 1900, 373.
 In January 1901, the lace patterns are interrupted by a pair of longer articles about lace entitled “Occupation for Winter Evenings.– Lace Work” and signed J. Brennan. The first lace design is replicated here, and they are written in a tone similar to that of the lace design articles.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. 1.–Flounce in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 1 (June 9, 1900): 373.
 James Brenan, “X.–Design for a Border in Carrickmacross Guipure,” Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (August 11, 1900): 523.
 Report of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, Limited, for 1902 (Dublin: Sealy, Bryers & Walker (Middle Abbey Street), 1903), 25-26.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. V.–Border in Innishmacsaint Raised Neddle-point Lace,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 7, 1900): 443.
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. VI.–Flounce in Limerick Lace (Tambour),” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (July 14, 1900): 462.
 Royal Dublin Society, Catalogue of the Art Industries Exhibition, held at Balls Bridge, Dublin, August 28, 29, 30, and 31, 1900 (Dublin: Brown and Nolan, 1900).
 James Brenan, “Lace Designs. No. XVIII. –Design for a Limerick Lace Flounce,” The Irish Homestead Vol. 6 Iss. 2 (October 27, 1900): 700.