Mastering the Art of Irish Needlework

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), September 29, 2005 | Go to article overview

Mastering the Art of Irish Needlework


WHEN we think of Irish needlework, lace and embroidery immediately comes to mind. Today old pieces of both fetch high prices in antique shops.

But there&s another form of Irish needlework which is finding a new audience thanks to the obsession and enterprise of a former nurse from Portadown, Sandra Counahan.

Mountmellick Work is exquisite in its own right and you may even have a piece of it at home without actually recognising it.

It is worked on a white, heavy, satinised cotton using both heavy and fine stitching with padded stitching used to raise the height of the stitch. It will have a knitted, uncut fringe, no eyelets or cut work and natural flora and the seashore are the inspiration for the patterns.

Mountmellick Work, according to a new book* by Sandra is thought to have been invented by a Mrs Johanna Carter in the town of Mountmellick in Ireland in 1825-30. She ran a small school for girls in the town where milling, spinning and weaving were the main sources of employment. But with famine looming and work becoming scarce she set up a cottage industry to help the local women. Using the available local materials of white cotton and thread she taught the women her unique style of embroidery and soon their work was being sold to the gentry of the day.

It was to be another half century or so before it was given its distinctive name and being taught to girls in the local primary school.

By 1948 it was still being taught by local nuns but becoming a dying skill. It wasn&t revived until the early 1970&s when a local historian asked Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy, a retired nun in the convent about Mountmellick Work. Using some patterns found in the convent and examples of work from local families she taught herself the craft and was soon holding classes in the town. …

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