I was once employed by a lingerie manufacturer to buy their fabrics. They sent me to Asia to shop for new laces. I trekked all over Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong searching for new lace designs, but nothing impressed me; the designs all looked the same.
Aesthetically, the designs lacked lyrical wholeness. They were patchworks of one idea here, another there – a big cacophony of ideas, giving only a bland impression of a once greater origin. Searching Ireland for examples of their renowned tradition of lace making, I discover the root of today’s hackneyed lace designs at the Kenmare Lace and Design Centre.
In the 1800s, the Sisters of the Poor Clare Convent, as a response to the poverty that followed the Great Famine, put Kenmare on the map in terms of lace making. Alencon, France and Venice, Italy already had their own traditions of handmade lace. The nuns wanted to start something Irish, something to impart in the women and girls of the community to ensure an employable skill through the tough times. They built a dedicated room for lace making, with windows in the ceiling to provide adequate light, and they trained and employed the women to make lace.
The women were taught several styles of lace making, including Limerick embroidery, Irish crochet, and Kenmare needlepoint, the most complex. A major factor in the success of the Kenmare lace was the strength of design. After winning several contests, the community saw potential in the lace making operation. In cooperation with the Kensington School of Design in London and the Crawford School of Art in Cork, they introduced an art education program at the abbey. With this nourishment, the original lace designs began to blossom.
Clients included Princess Grace and Edward VII for Queen Alexander. A collar cost the price of a steer. Queen Victoria purchased four pieces of Kenmare lace. Her support of their efforts influenced fashion trends in the Victorian Era 1837-1897. Handmade lace adorned wedding veils, lingerie, and altar outer falls. Men wore it as an indication of social position.
Eventually, the English discovered how to mass-produce lace by recalibrating machines used to make fish netting. Today in Asia, it takes several days to calibrate a commercial lace loom with a new design, then, once the pattern is set, just hours for the loom to create the most complex pattern. Unbelievable. In Kenmare, it took a full staff of nuns and girls 12 months to create one pillowcase and bedspread. The Asian made lace sells for $4/yard. The Kenmare set sold for the price of three houses.
The Kenmare Lace and Design Centre is a community effort run by Nora Finnegan to revitalize the old ways of lace making. The centre has an exhibition of original antique Kenmare laces as well as laces produced by today’s Kenmare ladies.
Nora has two books of original lace designs that were painstakingly hand-painted by the nuns. This artwork is the heart of Kenmare lace; the tradition continues because these designs survive. Some of the designs have leaked into the market place and been slightly altered by lace manufacturers so that they can be mass-produced. But what is made today is not as unique and beautiful as the original.