Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Reimagining Irish Lace in Western New York

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Reimagining Irish Lace in Western New York

Article excerpt

In 2011, I began research that would culminate in "(Re-)Making Irish Lace," an exhibition that ran at the Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University (CAM) from July 15-December 2, 2012. The mandate of CAM's Folk Arts Program is to document and interpret the cultural lives of Western New Yorkers, but like anywhere in the world, the region is marked by global interconnectivity with ongoing histories of migration, tourism, and social networks supported by technology. A diasporic Irish identity, for example, matters to a good number of people in the area. "(Re-)Making Irish Lace" attempted to understand how a particular art form has been interpreted by different groups of people, locally and abroad, for nearly 200 years, comparing past and recent practice. Fundamentally, I wanted to see how the unfurling story of Irish lace is playing out in the daily lives of Buffalonians. What does this tell us about contemporary efforts to preserve and revive traditions that developed under circumstances that no longer exist? And, as these art forms move out from their geographical and temporal origins, who determines the direction of their development? This essay offers two case studies of current practitioners living in Western New York, with the hope of shedding light on the negotiation of meaning and aesthetics as it relates to Ireland's recent efforts to promote its lacemaking traditions around the world. First, let me briefly sketch the historical context that informs current activities.

Handmade Lacemaking in Ireland

Handmade Irish lace was always a global product, sold first to wealthy aristocrats throughout Europe, and then, increasingly, marketed worldwide as a token of Ireland. The country's lacemaking industry was a latecomer to the international marketplace, arising in the 19th century as a commercial response to poverty and famine. Numerous convents, philanthropic societies, and wealthy patrons promoted widespread instruction in lacemaking, hoping to create a means for poor women to earn income. Conversely, shrewd entrepreneurs saw an opportunity for exploiting low-wage, skilled labor. Given the variety of motivations driving it, the organization of lace production ranged from cooperative workrooms run by nuns to factory "schools" demanding indentured servitude. Many of the characteristic Irish laces began as conscious imitations of popular Continental styles, but these adaptations were quickly transformed by local circumstances.

Regional styles emerged and matured; they were named for their main centers of production. Some of the new motifs that gained prevalence were the conventional symbols of Ireland like the rose of Sharon and the shamrock. As samples were sent to industrial exhibitions, like the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, Irish laces began receiving international recognition, both positive and negative. Though some styles achieved periods of widespread acclaim, winning first prizes and even enjoying the patronage of monarchs and popes, most were largely undervalued and criticized for lacking refinement. Common stylistic features often diverged from the preferences of affluent buyers who tended to favor delicate scale and perfect symmetry. The famed lace industries in France and Belgium relied on ateliers and design studios to produce stylish patterns that suited discerning, high fashion tastes. In contrast, most Irish lace production, directed more by philanthropic necessity than business acumen, had neither such clear artistic direction nor hierarchical structures of management. In some places, decisions regarding design were left to the discretion of makers who pleased themselves.

Irish Crochet and Youghal, arguably two of the more distinctive Irish styles, received some of the harshest reviews from critics. In 1897, textile expert and Englishman Alan S. Cole, after touring lacemaking centers, complained that 'the trade leaves the invention of ornamental forms for crochet work practically to the workers themselves, who have no training in drawing and consequently cannot produce properly designed patterns' (quoted in Ballard 1992, 45). …

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