Esther Fitzgerald
Rare Textiles

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London NW3 6UP   
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History of Limmerick Lace
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In 1829, Charles Walker brought 24 girls from Essex to Limerick, to start up a lace- making school. This was the beginning of Limerick lace, which came to be the most prestigious and expensive of the Irish laces. One of the reasons that Mr Walker chose Limerick were the large numbers of unemployed young women who could become his work-force. To get a place in the lace factories was not easy, as each girl had to provide a certificate from her doctor, a reference from an influential citizen and proof of her age, which had to be between 11 and 14. The social consequences of the lace industry on the local area were immediate: better housing, quality of life and even the ability to put aside some savings. When Mr Walker died in 1843, about 1700 females were employed in the various branches of the Limerick lace- making industry.
The lace was a combination of tambour and needlerun embroidery on a machine-made net, and was also known for its large variety of different filling patterns (up to 47 on one collar). It was the availability of machine-made net fabric, rather than the costly hand- made variety, which had enabled the expansion of the lace- making industry.
The quality of Limerick lace came to rival and then to surpass that of any other district in England. Mr Walker proudly offered a large wager that he would select a hundred Irish girls from among his workers, who would produce any given piece of lace superior to any similar work made by the same number of girls from France, Flanders, Saxony or Germany. In a relatively small amount of time, Limerick lace had become arguably the best in Europe.
The designs of Limerick lace were polished and refined, but were also bound by a very conservative market. As lace was such an expensive, luxury item, only available or affordable to the very rich lace buyers would not want to take risks with their purchases. The same people who approved entrants to the lace- making schools also organised and judged the lace- making competitions, thus the designs developed in a very constrained way. It was because of this conservative tendency that new currents in the larger world of design did not impact as they might otherwise have done on the world of lace- making. This is illustrated by the rarity of Art Nouveau lace designs at a time when the influences of this new style were being felt almost everywhere else.
Lace, a History by Santina M Levy, published Victoria and Albert Museum,1983
Limerick Lace by Nellie Clerigh and Veronica Rowe, published Colin Smyth, Gerrards Cross, 1995
The Crawford Municipal Art Gallery catalogue 1991, compiled by Peter Murray
The Art Workers Quarterly, 1905