Lace, but not as you know it

Irish lace is world famous for its beauty and diversity, but behind the fragile surface lie stories of love, life and death


Let’s talk about knickers, or at least their lac y edges. Vests too, if we must. Lace is next to the skin of half of Ireland’s population, and not far from the imaginations of many of the other half. Yet we sell ourselves short with the sad unravellings of machine-made nylon, and forget that real lace is not only incredibly beautiful; it was also once, literally, lifesaving. A new exhibition, Interlace , at the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny, takes a fresh look at lace through the eyes of eight artists and makers.

Lace is a fascinating mix of contradictions. It conceals and reveals, hints at both modesty and tantalising sex appeal; and while it is today a feminine preserve, it once flowed from the collars and cuffs of wealthy men, worn as proof that their hands never went near anything as dirty as manual work. Irish lace is world famous. Listen to it properly, and it can tell you about time, nature, history, love, life and death.

Take those latter three first, and think about how lace still plays a fundamental role in the rites of our passage through life. There it is in christening robes, wedding veils and the fabric of funeral trappings. Elements of the Carrickmacross tradition were evident in the lace on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress at Westminster Abbey almost two years ago.

An experienced lace-watcher can tell you exactly where a piece was made. Irish lace was introduced to Ireland by nuns returning from the Continent with samples of Venetian and French lace. Then, during the Famine, women formed lace-making collectives to earn money to buy food and save their families from starvation.

This delicate beauty came from dark times, and because of its regional origins in a time before mass communications, variations in Irish lace are enormous. Families created their own motifs, but methods were widely different too. Carrickmacross lace is netted and stitched, Kenmare lace is needlepoint and Youghal lace is crocheted. And while it may look fragile, strong crocheted lace, of a kind that now perhaps resides, wrapped in tissue, in a cardboard box at the back of your wardrobe, would once have been boil-washed to keep its brightness.

Patty Murphy’s installation at Interlace comes from her experience of discovering Youghal lace garments in storage at the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks. She wanted to bring the immediacy she felt when holding that fabric to life again. “Craftspeople are tied to time,” she says. “But we see lace with our contemporary senses, and can be blown away by the intricacies, by the labour. So trying to present lace today, in a contemporary way, is very difficult.”

Another maker in the exhibition, glass artist Róisín de Buitléar, sees the solution in loving the lace we have. Using lace is, she says, about a different way of living, of seeing things, of valuing time, and of what you choose to treasure. Why keep countless pairs of knickers when you could have just a few special ones? “It’s the fact that you’d hide the most wonderful piece of material, under your clothes.” We pause to consider the idea of precious fabric, hinting at skin, and how you might feel knowing you’re wearing a secret to be shown only to someone who really deserves to see it.

De Buitléar’s work with Waterford crystal makers Fred Curtis, Eamonn Hartley and Greg Sullivan, in the exhibition CAUTION! Fragile, Irish glass – Tradition in Transition , is on show at the Museum of Glass in Washington state. She expands on her idea of lace’s transformative, almost alchemical properties. In the right light, her glass pieces almost disappear, leaving the shadows created by the lacy pattern dancing on the walls behind.

Shadows also feature in Caroline Schofield’s black lace birds. For her, lace about myth and memory. “Memories change and shift; they alter the past. You can’t have the same memory twice,” she says. Made of lace, Schofield’s ravens link the long-ago makers and their untold stories of Famine survival with a present where living memory has slid into history.

Birds also appear in Anita Elliot’s work. Her interest in lace came from seven years spent in Australia. While away, she remembered her mother hand-knitting Aran sweaters to sell. “Suddenly it all seemed so romantic. But I didn’t want to replicate that, I wanted to make it finer.” The piece she made for Interlace draws on how lacemakers used elements of their surroundings – in her case swans – to inform their patterns and designs. “It’s the memory of lace, rather than the lace itself,” she says.

Saidhbhín Gibson “mends” decayed and dried leaves with lace, calling attention to the structures that underpin both lacemaking and nature. There is magic in both. “The key,” she says, “is to acknowledge the skill and tradition while not being afraid to experiment.”

Another artist interested in structure – in this case the structures of the mind – is Cathryn Hogg, who uses the twisted interconnections of lace as a metaphor for how our brains work. Everything, from thought to idea, experience to emotion, habit, being and doing, can be seen as connected networks. Her little woven corded containers invite ideas to wrap around them.

Equally experimental, but in an utterly different way, are Helen McAllister’s marvellous shoes. Drawing inspiration from frequent trips to Venice, spiritual home of impossible beauty – a stone city built on water – McAllister’s shoes are a gloriously chaotic updating of lacemaking, with wild shapes growing over and from her basic structure. “I am undisciplined and fight against the rules and norms that would expose the lack of perfection that is needed,” she says. But that’s a little too self-deprecating, because it takes a clever tension between technique and imagination to create the perfect balance of her fairytale slippers: fairytales, that is, for princesses on their wildest flights of fancy. And just like those long flowing lace cuffs, these shoes fight against the deadening hand of utility that reduces our underwear drawers to the boring, practical and mundane.

It might be a right of passage, but there’s nothing mundane about a wedding, and designer Natalie B Coleman’s wedding dress features in Interlace . Forget about princesses, forget about meringues, this dress shows that both lace and marriage can be a modern affair. But, Coleman adds, lace is also about contradictions: about being strong but fragile, child and woman, daughter and wife. “They’re the contradictions of being a woman,” she says. Lace “is a craft, it’s love, it’s effort, it’s special. Hardly anyone would use handmade lace any more, it’s gone beyond price.”

Thinking about this, lace is also, maybe, an antidote to that all-too-prevalent idea that everything has a cost, whether in terms of material or units of time, a cost that can be calculated so that a price tag can be affixed. And if lace is all this and more, isn’t it time we all got those scraps of lace that sit at the back of the cupboards and drawers of so many, if they’re lucky, and bring them out into the light again? Lace is very special, and Interlace could be the moment to fall in love with it again.

Interlace, curated by Angela O’Kelly, opens at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, next Friday and runs until May 7th. See

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