The town of Mountmellick in County Laois in Ireland will forever be linked with Mountmellick embroidery, one of the few needlearts to be native to Ireland. It started in the early 1800’s with a woman named Joanna Carter who ran a local school to teach girls how to embroider. Some authors give credit to the Quakers (Society of Friends) who had established a school in the same town in the late 1700’s. These schoolgirls used their embroidery skills to earn money for their school books. What is known is that in 1816, Joanna received an award at a London exhibition for developing new embroidery stitches which were the basis for the Mountmellick technique.
One of the reasons for the embroidery’s long-term success was due to the local economy and cotton industry. The thread and woven materials were readily available at home. Handwork became a cottage industry after the Great Famine and Cholera outbreak (1845-1852) which really hit the area hard. To help local families make ends meet, Mrs. Millner, a member of the Religious Society of Friends, employed women to stitch Mountmellick adorned items which were sold at ports primarily to folks heading to America.
Most of the techniques we have looked at started with the wealthy and then were picked up by the lower class when supplies became affordable. Mountmellick actually started with the lower income households and moved to the middle-class in the Victorian era. One of the reasons for its success was because it is a very easy technique to learn, even for the young. Also, the large designs allowed for individual creativity in how the stitcher filled in the flowers and leaves. Weldon Publishers authored several books on the topic in the late 1800’s. However, as with most of the needlearts, the need for handmade household linens was reduced with the increase of manufactured goods.
The technique had all but died out by the 1970’s until Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy was given a doily stitched with white threads on white fabric. She had lived in the Presentation Convent in Mountmellick since 1936 and found only a few of the older nuns remembered how to do the stitches. Sister Teresa Margaret asked questions, looked through records and old trunks trying to re-create the technique used on that fateful doily. Once she figured it out, she began to stitch and teach others. And, as they say……."the rest is history!"
According to Pat Trott in her book, "Beginner’s Guide to Mountmellick Embroidery", pg 6 (1742) it can be recognized by these characteristics:
- It is always white on white.
- There are no drawn threads, open work spaces, or eyelets
- It has contrast: smooth satin stitch against padded and knotted stitchery; and cotton satin fabric; against the more matte cotton embroidery thread.
- The designs are usually fairly large-scale, floral or nature themed.
- There is often a buttonhole edge and a knitted fringe, which helps to carry the weight of the heavy embroidery to the edge of the design, and gives a feeling of balance.
Because of the fabric and thread used, this technique was used to decorate sturdier household goods, such as tablecloths, coverlets, and cushion covers. It was also used for clothing especially christening gowns. Items stitched in this technique were meant to be used. In fact, washing this particular fabric made it shinier and it was easy to boil out any stains.
Cotton sateen is a finely woven fabric where most of the threads are on the surface of the fabric, causing a satin-like texture and sheen. You may be able to find it in quilt stores or home decorating centers. Several sources advise that it will shrink up to 6% and can be machine washed in any temperature.
Traditional Mountmellick embroidery used a matte cotton thread. However, it is getting harder to obtain that type of thread. The goal is to have as much contrast in your thread to your fabric as possible so use a thread with limited sheen. You can reverse it and use a fabric with a matte look and a thread with a sheen, such as pearl cotton. The thread needs to have some weight and dimension to it, so floss is not a good choice. You will want to find cotton threads in varying thicknesses to add to the three-dimensional quality for this technique. A couple of examples would be Overture, a heavy strandable 4-ply cotton (RGOVE-V15), heavy weight 3/3 cotton thread (usually for filet lace) (LA3-EC) , and Danish Flower Thread if you stitched with multiple strands (DFT-000).
You should have needles with a sharp point. Chenille needles will be very useful in getting through the heavy duty fabric and have a larger eye than crewel needles. You will want to carry a selection of each to accommodate your different thicknesses of threads. John James has a set of 6 chenille needles in their clever Pebbles container (7043B). Mary Arden has a set of 6 chenille needles also (7034A)
It is very important to use a frame or a good hoop to keep your fabric taught. Many stitchers prefer to have a hands-free system because it often takes both hands to guide the needle through the fabric. Click here to see all the hoop and frame choices.
Scissors are important and you need at least two different kinds. Get a good pair of heavy duty dressmaking shears to cut the fabric and a smaller pair of embroidery scissors for the threads. If you are using paper and tape to transfer your patterns, you will want a separate pair of scissors for those tasks. Scissors are a very personal choice. Click here to see all our scissors.
It is always fun to do the research for these newsletters because I continually run across websites that can enhance our stitching knowledge and experience. One great sight is the Embroiderer’s Guild from the United Kingdom. They have many wonderful resources, including an outstanding on-line library of stitches. I have listed some of the most common stitches used in Mountmellick Embroidery and given you the link to the Embroiderer’s Guild resource.
- Buttonhole Stitch
- Chain Stitch
- Coral Stitch
- Cretan Stitch
- French Knots
- Satin Stitch
- Split Stitch
- Stem Stitch
There are a couple of stitches specific to Mountmellick work: the Mountmellick stitch, and the cable plait stitch. The Mountmellick stitch is a line stitch but it is wider than a stem or chain and it has a raised quality. One side of the stitch turns out smooth, while the other has a ridge and looks like small waves. It is hard to explain in writing how to do the stitch. Needle and Thread has a short tutorial that makes it so much easier to understand. (reference link)
Another stitch mentioned in several places is the Mountmellick Thorn Stitch; however, I found very little documentation about the Mountmellick Thorn Stitch. In only one place was a description given, so I have no idea if this is correct or not. They advised that the stitch is essentially a feather stitch with a French knot worked into it. If anyone knows more about this stitch, please let us know and we will include it in a future newsletter.
Great stitch instructions for Mountmellick and other Whitework embroidery are in Contemporary Whitework (1931A).
A-Z of Whitework Book 1 Surface Embroidery (1659N) has a wonderful series of photographs for the Mountmellick and cable plait stitch.
We don’t usually talk about the actual finishing of a piece, however, this technique has a unique finished edge-knitted fringe. The fringe is not knitted directly on the finished piece, but done separately and then attached. It is knitted using three or four threads. You cast on enough for the desired width (not length) of the lace and then knit in a long strip. The stitch width of the lace should be divisible by 3. Then the part I don’t understand is that after all that work, you unravel one edge of the long strip to create the fringe. The A-Z of Whitework Book 1 (1659N) also has a great set of instructions and pictures on how to knit and unravel the edges to create the fringe.
OTHER FORMS OF IRISH EMROIDERY
Carrickmacross Embroidery is a form of lace associated with the town of Carrickmacross in Monaghan County, Ireland. It has its roots in lace that the local rector’s wife brought from her honeymoon in Italy. However, it also evolved into its own distinctive style. This technique did not die out as did other art forms, due in part to a local convent where nuns still teach this needleart. Most of the lace is produced for high-end fashion designers and on commission. For example, the sleeves of Princess Diana’s wedding dress were decorated with Carrickmacross lace.
"Limerick Lace differs from all other Irish Laces in that it was a purely commercial enterprise started by an Englishman, whereas the rest were the outcome of the philanthropy of Irish ladies. In 1829 Charles Walker started a lace industry based on Nottingham lace in Limerick. The industry thrived for many years until the demand for lace fell and the trade nearly died out. It was revived in 1880 by Mrs. Vere O’Brien and the tradition of Limerick Lace continues to this day. The beauty of Limerick Lace is its delicacy and the contrast between the outlines of the design and the filling stitches used." (reference link)
To read more about Irish embroidery and lace techniques check out the Guild of Irish Lacemakers website at: http://irishlace.org/_new/?target=main
We hope these "helpful hints" make your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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