Irish Lace, the Former Art of Extra Income

Photo Credit: ipomoea310 via Flickr


Made famous by intricate designs, Irish lace became financially important to Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s, or the mid 19th century.

The famine created a domino effect that caused the poor to be knocked down to an even lower bracket and the Catholic Ursuline nuns who came to Ireland believed Irish women could use a certain skill to help their family survive the famine.

Photo Credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons via Flickr


The Catholic Ursuline nuns, who had seen the success of Venetian lace, created a sort of business plan and established crochet schools for the girls and women of Ireland. Most crocheting and needle crafting is now done by hobbyists, but Ireland’s mid 19th century was a time when the market for lace making was profitable. Can you imagine a time that allowed for the formation of crochet schools? Although I’m not currently engaged in a crochet project, I’m looking down at the dish cloth that’s being worked up on my knitting needles and I’m imagining a time when this needle craft might have provided food for my family.

The Catholic nuns were business leaders of their time for believing Irish girls and women could make a financial profit from learning the skill of Irish lace. Since most women already knew how to work with needles and yarn, they were ideal apprentices for the schools that provided the necessary equipment.

In the Irish Crochet Lace Renaissance, Bevan said these women often worked by candle light in the evenings from a lacemaker’s lamp (N.d., p. 2). This lamp was characterized by one flame being reflected by a glass globe teeming with water.

The apprentices were given creative reign to form their own designs and, patterns were often secrets passed down from mother to daughter. While these secrets added income to families, when a family line died out the patterns often did too.

Bevan goes on to explain that a group of philanthropists thought this cottage industry could help workers rise above the breadline. They desired to reinvent this industry, but reinvention required updated patterns. To bring about reinvention a committee was organized in 1884 with the sole purpose of locating updated lace patterns for the workers so the business could soar at full heights.

Although the established schools faded away with the industrial revolution and Irish lace is no longer produced to support starving families, the skill is used today for hobby and pleasure.

Beginners are welcomed to try the Irish lace, but yarn crafters with advanced crochet skills might have better luck at catching on more quickly. Let us know if you’ve ever tried making Irish Lace.