The story of Irish crochet

Published June 27, 1999|Updated Sept. 29, 2005

Although the baby christening set illustrated here is not truly traditional Irish crochet, it is a modern-day interpretation of the craft with the look and feel of antique pieces.

Irish crochet is a unique art with a long and interesting past. You can identify Irish crochet pieces by their lacy, netlike backgrounds with applied or set-in motifs.

The motifs are often simulations of natural forms such as roses, petals, leaves and even shamrocks. Some of the motifs are worked over another piece of thread to give them a dimensional appearance. Traditional pieces of this art form are most often made of fine white or ecru cotton thread.

Irish crochet was used to make a wide variety of items, everything from small scarves, edgings and lacy collars to larger pieces such as wedding gowns, full-length dressing coats, baby gowns and shawls.

The story of Irish crochet intertwines with the history of Ireland in the mid-1800s and tells the tale of a vast cottage industry that saved a country impoverished by the potato famine of the period. It is believed that crochet was first introduced to Ireland by way of France in the late 1700s, but its importance to the country did not come into play until crocheted pieces became popular around 1830.

Before the potato famine, wives of fishermen and laborers did small amounts of crocheting to supplement family income. During the famine, when vast numbers of people experienced extreme hardship, crochet played an intrinsic part in the family income. It is well documented that many Irish families also used earnings made from crocheting to save for boat passage to start new lives in the United States and Canada. But those crochet traditions did not appear to continue to the same degree among the Irish once they arrived in their new homes.

Why did crochet become the salvation of the Irish people? It was an easy craft to do and the materials used to create even the most elaborate pieces were relatively cheap. The only tool required was a simple hook that could even be homemade. There also was a great demand for Irish crochet during this period for both fashion and the home.

As Irish crochet requires individual pieces that are set into a mesh background, it was ideal for home work and group projects. Groups were formed with some workers making motifs that could be assembled by others. Networks of crocheters created large productions of this popular product. Teaching and learning crochet skills became very popular.

At the end of the famine, cottage industries declined but interest in Irish crochet continued, and the beautiful pieces of crochet gained worldwide acclaim. The real downturn in the popularity of Irish crochet appears to have come in the 1920s, when the trimming, collars and intricate lace of this form of crochet lost popularity.

You'll find more information about the history of Irish crochet as well as other fascinating accounts of other types of crochet in the book Crochet History and Technique by Lis Paludan, published by Interweave Press, 201 E Fourth St., Loveland, CO 80537-5655. You can visit the Web site at

Instant heirloom

Some of the most requested infant items are christening outfits. This Irish rose crocheted christening set is sure to become an heirloom. This is a project suitable for intermediate crocheters. The set includes a 34- by 36-inch blanket, 14-inch square pillow, gown, bonnet and booties and comes in traditional white. The gown is sized for an infant (3 to 9 months) with a finished chest measurement of 24 inches. The set comes in Lion Brand "Jamie," a 100 percent Acrilan acrylic with Bounce-Back fibers. All pieces use sizes C/2 and D/3 (2.50 and 3.00mm) crochet hooks. Refer to kit HM890627. For the pattern only: Send $2 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Herrschners, 2800 Hoover Road, Dept. M, Stevens Point, WI 54492. To order a kit for $33.99, postage included, call (800) 441-0838 (Dept. M) or send to above address.

Hints or questions of general interest will be used in the column when possible. Please send them to Nancy J. Thomas, in care of the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

1999, Universal Press Syndicate