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The Art That Saved the Irish From Starvation By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 19, 2005

Anyone who doubts that art can change the world should visit the Irish crochet lace show that just opened at the new Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley. The first thing you’ll notice is the intricate, often fanciful, beauty of the hundred-plus pieces on display; the second is their amazing history.  

Far from being an ancient indigenous art, Irish crochet was invented in the mid-1800s as a way of enabling families and communities to survive the potato famine. The invention is generally credited to Mademoiselle Riego de Blanchardiere, the daughter of a Franco-Spanish nobleman and an Irish mother. She figured out how to make lace that resembled Venetian needlepoint but that could be worked on a crochet hook, greatly speeding production. A seven-inch piece that took at least two hundred hours to make with a needle could be crocheted in only (!) 20 hours.  

That suited the technique to mass production, as did the fact that, unlike ordinary crochet, which is worked in rows, Irish crochet consists of motifs—leaves, flowers, fruit—that are individually fashioned and then joined through a network of crocheted fans or mesh. This permitted a division of labor: workers could specialize in particular aspects, according to their ability.  

Mademoiselle Riego published the first pattern book of Irish crochet in 1846. By 1847, according to textile historian Marie Treanor, 12,000 to 20,000 girls—as both instigators and practitioners, women seem to have been in the forefront here—were being paid to make Irish crochet in and around Cork, in southern Ireland. A second center of production sprang up around the town of Clones in the north. Irish crochet was a cottage industry: the workers were supplied with the materials, which they worked in their homes. The completed pieces were brought by foot to a lacemaking center in town, where they were carefully arranged and then crocheted together as collars, cuffs, bodices, ruffles and trimmings, dresses and coats, and even parasols.  

Whole families took part, jealously guarding special motifs. “When neighbors entered a house unexpectedly,” writes Treanor, “the lace was hidden from view.” And for good reason: a distinctive pattern, finely worked, supplied a family’s income.  

Irish lace found ready buyers in Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, New York and San Francisco (a major center for the distribution of Irish crochet until the earthquake of 1906). Though its popularity waxed and waned with fashion and soon faced a challenge from machine-made lace, it was made in quantity until World War I.  

Today, Irish crochet lace is rare and valuable—an object to be handled with care. The pieces at Lacis all come from the textile collection of Jules Kliot, which was assembled by Kliot and his late wife Kaethe over a period of 40 years. The Kliot collection includes thousands of specimens whose origins range from pre-Columbian Peru to seventeenth-century European courts to the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Lace, says Kliot, “was the most remarkable substance that we had ever seen. There was something unworldly about it…[T]his was a fabric that could not have been made by man.”  

The Irish crochet lace show is the inaugural exhibit at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, which occupies 6,000 square feet in the retail store, also called Lacis [pronounced luh-CEASE], founded by Jules and Kaethe Kliot in 1965. (Lacis is a kind of filet lace.) Conceived after Kaethe Kliot’s untimely death in 2002, the museum is intended as a tribute to and expression of the support and encouragement that she offered in the store and beyond.  

“When Kaethe passed away,” says Jules Kliot, “thousands of letters were written. There was a guestbook on our website, and people just wrote in from all over the world how much Kaethe meant to them and to the textile arts community.”  

Asked why they decided to open the museum with a show of Irish crochet lace, both Jules Kliot and museum conservator Martha Sherick Shen say that it seemed like the best way to convey the spirit of Kaethe Kliot and Lacis.  

“There are so many laces that people can’t relate to,” Shen observes. She meant that most ordinary viewers can’t imagine how these textiles could have been fabricated. Whereas with Irish crochet, “a lot of people have a little basis of understanding,” even though “the thread we have today is so much bigger so that to have created something out of that size of thread”—the size of a fine human hair—“is still awesome.”  

Certainly I was awed by one collar with stitches so fine that they looked like foam. Awe aside, many pieces—a double sunflower with dangling buds, for example—simply evoked delight.  

“This initial exhibit,” Kliot writes in the catalog, “…represents a defining moment in Irish history, when survival depended upon the belief that ‘all is possible.’” It’s that belief—a faith in the possibility of transcendent human achievement—that lies at the heart of both the show and the museum. Its power is borne out in the marvelous examples of Irish crochet lace on display. Should you find yourself wishing to exercise that power firsthand, you can buy one of the pattern books published by Lacis and make your own Irish crochet lace. Tools, materials, instruction and moral support are all available as well.  

The Irish crochet lace exhibit runs through July 30. In July a companion show, “Irish Crochet to Freeform,” will open to coincide with this summer’s joint meeting of the Crochet Guild of America and the Knitting Guild of America in Oakland. Marie Treanor (from Ireland) and other experts will be teaching classes and leading workshops.  


“Irish Crochet Lace: 150 Years of a Tradition” is at the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, 2982 Adeline St. (just north of the Ashby BART station), 843-7290. Monday–Saturday, noon–6 p.m. Admission is free. The museum website is www.lacismuseum.org.