Fabric fit for a princess: Limerick embraces the lace

A recent exhibition at the city museum showcased the county’s rich history of lace. Well, if it’s good enough for Kate Middleton . . .

I’m in Limerick for a one-off event to mark its extraordinary history of lacemaking. Members of the public have been invited to bring in their antique lace to Limerick Museum and archives so that it can be assessed by an expert, then recorded and photographed.

Walking into the room where the event is happening is like walking into a marvellous ad-hoc museum. Beautiful pieces of lace are laid out carefully on tables, awaiting inspection and assessment by Nora Finnegan of the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre in Co Kerry.

Much of what is in the room – christening robes, veils, ecclesiastic vestments, pinafores – was not made by the families who now own them; it was common for hand-made lace to be sold commercially in the past. At one point, almost 2,000 women were employed as lace-makers in Limerick.

One such piece is Lily Hackett’s christening robe, still in perfect condition, which was bought 68 years ago in Limerick by her parents-in-law’s family. It is tambour lace and has since been worn at 16 christenings across three generations. The last person to be christened in it was her granddaughter.


Family wedding dresses might sometimes get handed down, but it’s difficult to imagine any of them would be used 16 times in 68 years. But this lace christening robe is a true family heirloom, both for the exquisite quality of the lace and the history it has accumulated.

Finnegan moves among the tables like a detective, with a magnifying glass held to her eye, sometimes wearing two pairs of glasses at the same time. People who have bought in their inherited lace want to know more about it. She is able to tell them if it is high-quality machine lace, handmade, Carrickmacross, tambour: the vocabulary rolls off her tongue.

Several members of the public have taken lace as the dress code for the day; there are lace tights, hand-made crocheted lace camisoles, lace-trimmed cardigans, lace scarves and an antique lace blouse.

Strikingly, everything is white. Whether veils, altar pieces, christening robes, or, in one instance, a crocheted bedspread, nothing has been dyed. We’ve become used to seeing lace in every colour, but most fashion lace nowadays is machine-made and factory-dyed.

Midway through the morning, Finnegan gives a short talk on the social history of lace-making. She tells us that an astonishing 12,000 women in Cork in the 1880s were earning a living by making crochet lace. Queen Victoria, it appears, was the primary driver of the lace economy in the Victoria era: she wore it habitually and popularised it as a result. "It took a couple of villages several weeks to make each of her outfits," Finnegan says.

Another indicator of how strong the lace economy once was is the story Finnegan tells of the American woman who commissioned a lace bedspread from the Kenmare nuns in 1886. There were five nuns working on it full time for two years. It cost £300. “You could buy a decent house for £100 in those days,” Finnegan says.

Given the vast sums involved, it makes sense that some of the most famous examples of white lace in fashion have been worn by royalty. From Queen Victoria, with her lace mantillas and dresses, to Princess Grace of Monaco's wedding dress and on to Kate Middleton's homage to the same dress, only the wealthiest can now afford customised, hand-made lace.

The time and work that goes into making even the smallest piece of lace makes it utterly uneconomical. Royals wear lace because they can afford it. Lace on the red carpet is pretty much any colour at all except white, and again, possibly because white lace is considered bridal.

The items that cause perhaps the biggest stir in the museum are the exquisite little tabard Limerick lace pinafores that were made for – and worn by – the toddler children of affluent families more than a century ago. Who would ever think of dressing a toddler in something so beautiful, fragile and expensive in 2015?

Dolores Benson is the owner of these pieces, and she has even brought along an old photograph of her ancestors wearing these little pinafores. She tells me she is planning on donating them so that others can enjoy them too. So at some point in the future, you will be able to see these lovely pieces in the Limerick museum. Meantime, there is an online gallery of the items that were brought in on that day during Heritage Week, and photographed for the museum and archives.