Lacemaking exhibit at Castellani Art Museum
by Jack Foran
Eighteenth-century English writer and talker and general savant Samuel Johnson ranked possession of lace with knowledge of the ancient Greek tongue. “Greek, Sir, is like lace,” he said, “every man gets as much of it as he can.”
Lacemaking was invented and perfected on the continent—Italy, France, Belgium, Flanders—during the Renaissance, from which time lace was a favored apparel item for gentlemen and ladies alike, for gentlemen on shirt collars and cuffs and shirt fronts, for ladies on or as blouses or dresses or undergarments. Or displayed in such housewares as tablecloths and doilies. It was a natural status symbol. Ownership and display of lace signaled that the owner was both aesthetically sophisticated—with an eye for beautiful things—and rich.
The Irish got into lacemaking late in the game, in the 19th century, during famine and other hard times. It became a cottage industry for Irish women, to earn income to stave off starvation. It was taught to the women by the nuns, whose religious order connections to the continent might well have resulted in their having in their possession some examples of continental fine needlework, which they themselves studied to imitate and reproduce, and as they learned, taught what they learned to the local women.
But as the result of the Irish acquisition of the art in this way, that is, basically, second-hand, the Irish production, early on, at any rate, and later on as well in its most characteristic mode or manner, seemed crude and imperfect—too much revealing the hands of individual makers, their idiosyncrasies and limitations, rather than of a uniform superlative quality—by traditional highest standards, which were based, of course, on the continental production.
The Irish lace was thus generally undervalued, until the advent of the Arts and Crafts Movement, in the latter half of the 19th century, which put a premium on individualistic production, the hand-made look, traces of the individual maker, in the new age of the machine, which threatened to take over all sorts of formerly handwork processes, changing the basic meaning of the word manufacture. And in one significant way, the machine actually abetted the production of hand-made lace.
A superb exhibit on Irish lace and lacemaking, put together with the assistance of several local women aficionados of the lacemaking art, is currently on display at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University. The local women are Molly Carroll, a lace collector, restorer, and recycler, and the mother-and-daughter team of Mary Lou and Joan Sulecki, who are not Irish as to ancestry, but have studied Irish lacemaking with experts in Ireland, and who themselves make different varieties of Irish lace.
The earliest and most characteristically Irish lace is known as Irish Crochet, a style modeled on Venetian and Flemish originals by the sisters of the Ursiline convent at Cork, who in 1845 opened a crochet workshop for the local women. A display bolt of Irish Crochet presents a hodge-podge of sturdy individual motif elements including stylized leaves and flowers and grape clusters, seemingly by different hands, no motif just like any other, connected by a webwork of threads embellished with tiny decorative knots. Another Irish Crochet example is like looking down at an ocean tidal pool and discovering the surprising variety there of plant and animal life, starfish, urchins, barnacles, mosses.
Other types of Irish lace on display—associated with convents in Youghal, not far from Cork on the Irish south coast, Carrickmacross in the far northeast, just below Ulster, and Limerick, in the south-central portion of the country, close by the Shannon River—are of a much more delicate overall character than Irish Crochet, and more elaborately patterned in more abstract than naturalistic motifs. Also of note, the Carrickmacross and Limerick productions benefited from industrial age machine progress. Machine-made extremely fine netting was employed as a base or background material to which the lace proper material was added by embroidery or appliqué techniques. The netting was then either left as diaphanous background, or cut away in negative spaces within or between motifs, leaving just single thread connections between the motifs, achieving an extreme delicacy effect, fragility effect.
Youghal lacemaking did not employ machine-made backing, but was produced by sewing first a frame outline, then the lacework in progress, as necessary, on a background of colored paper—to allow the lacemaker to see the work in progress, see what she was doing—then upon completion of the lace, clipping the thread attachments to the colored paper. Joan Sulecki, who makes Youghal-type lace, has provided a work-in-progress sampler to illustrate how she goes about creating first the framework, then infill motifs, on a colored paper card.
In addition to the strictly Irish lace or facsimile displays, Mary Lou Sulecki has a number of Irish lace-derivative figural compositions, including a series of Christmas ornaments and a prize-winning medallion presenting a goldfinch posing on a thistle branch. And from Molly Carroll, a number of recycled lacework apparel items. A woman’s blouse constructed in a squarish manner reminiscent of the circa 1900s time period the featured additional lacework would have been produced.
This delightful and instructive exhibit was curated by Carrie Hertz, curator of folk arts at the Castellani Museum. It continues through December 2.blog comments powered by Disqus
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