+3531 6313822 nationalich@chg.gov.ie

Mountmellick Embroidery

Location Mountmellick, Laois as well as other locations in Ireland and internationally
Categories Traditional craftsmanship
Keywords Embroidery, craft
Contact organisation Mountmellick Development Association Ltd
Mountmellick Embroidery Museum

Mountmellick Embroidery is a form of Whitework, worked on cotton fabric using cotton thread. It is a white on white embroidery entirely Irish in origin and design, originating in Mountmellick, Laois in the early 1800s.

Background information

In the early 1800s Mountmellick was known as ‘the little Manchester of Ireland’ due to the large and diverse range of industries that were in the town. Cotton was being produced by the Quakers so it was easily accessible. The Quakers had a number of schools and children were taught needlework as part of the curriculum. So, using what materials were produced locally and were readily available the teachers drew designs of local flora and fauna and incorporated them into everyday items of the time: e.g. sideboard cloths, nightdress cases, brush and comb bags, bedspreads.

The fabric used is a heavy satin jean which means that it can take hardship, as a result many of the early work has survived, even though it has been washed many times. The embroidery gained popularity with the gentry and a cottage industry flourished. By the end of the century it had gained popularity in both UK and USA and publishing companies produced many magazines and books featuring Mountmellick Work. With the onset of World War I, interest declined until a local Presentation Nun revived the craft after receiving a trunk of original patterns from the Pim family, one of the original Quaker family to settle in Mountmellick.

In the late 1800’s at the height of its popularity Weldon Publishers printed a series of magazines on Mountmellick Embroidery and also featured it in the Weldon’s Encyclopedia of Needlework. Mary Thomas Embroidery and Mrs Leech Needlework also featured Mountmellick Embroidery. Over the years numerous books and magazines featuring Mountmellick Embroidery have been published. The Museum has many of these books in their collection. More recently specialised books by Jane Houston-Almqvist, Sandra Counahan and Yvette Stanton have made Mountmellick Embroidery accessible to a wider audience.

Handcrafts in general have gained popularity across the world and Mountmellick Embroidery is now enjoying popularity once again. In order to ensure that the craft stays alive, the embroidery has evolved to be used on items that are more relevant to life today, such as cushions, tablecloths, napkins, doilies, christening robes, communion and wedding dresses. Framed pieces are also quite popular as these suit both period and modern homes.

Practice and practitioners

The Embroidery continues to be practiced locally in Mountmellick. Weekly drop-in classes are held in Mountmellick Museum. These classes aim to motivate stitchers to continue with the craft and to encourage beginners and improvers. The age range varies from 30 to 80yrs. Videos showing the instructions can be viewed on Youtube. Classes are also held by various practitioners in Portlaoise, Clonaghadoo, and Edenderry, Offaly.

A team of volunteer practitioners visit local primary schools to teach the children embroidery and the techniques used in Mountmellick Work. Local secondary schools offer Mountmellick Embroidery to Home Economics students for Junior Cert examinations. The teachers in the schools are encouraged to bring the children to visit the Museum where they are told the history and given a personal tour of the Museum exhibiting the Embroidery.

Through the perseverance of Presentation Sister Teresa Margaret many ICA guilds and Embroidery Guilds in Ireland are now offering classes to their members. Embroidery, Lace and Needlework guilds throughout the world know about Mountmellick Work and teach the craft. Many of these guild members have visited Mountmellick and have taken workshops from the local Tutors and have shared the techniques that they have learned in Mountmellick when they returned home. Many of the overseas guilds have pieces of Mountmellick Work in their collections. Stitchers that travel to Mountmellick to perfect their craft are encouraged to share their knowledge with their peers.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The voluntary Mountmellick Embroidery Museum Committee under the umbrella of Mountmellick Development Association Ltd. is committed to safeguarding the large collection of old Mountmellick Embroidery work that has been donated to them. The Museum is open to the public free of charge all year round. The Museum act as a contact for people interested in learning the craft and they organise workshop to visitors, tailored to their needs.

The Museum hold an annual competition to encourage stitchers complete a piece of embroidery and to perfect their stitches. This is an International event and was won by an Australian Stitcher in 2017. Ballyfin Demesne, voted one of The Best Seven Hotels in the world 2018, commissioned a framed piece of work which is on display in the Hotel. Sir David Davies, owner of the De Vesci Estate, Abbeyleix commissioned a set of placemats for the house. Contemporary Mountmellick Work has been presented to visiting Presidents, Princes and Ambassadors to Ireland as appropriate gifts.

In July 2018, Museum Committee Chairperson Ann Dowling attended the New Zealand Embroidery Guild Conference, where she gave a presentation on Mountmellick Embroidery and visited Western Australia Guild Headquarters in Perth. The Museum has built strong links with these guilds over the years.

Stitchers go into the local primary schools on a voluntary basis to teach the children. Local secondary schools have started to incorporate Mountmellick Work into the Junior Cert Home Economics curriculum. School teachers are encouraged to bring their students to the Museum prior to the classes so that the children can learn about their local history and to see the old work first hand.

Exhibitions of contemporary Mountmellick Work are held in Mountmellick and in different venues throughout the Country on an Annual basis.

Local practitioners have given talks and demonstrations at the Agricultural Show in Tullamore, Offaly and at the National Ploughing Championships.

Mountmellick Community School students entered a dress in the national Junk Kouture Competition which was made from recycled Mountmellick Embroidery. This dress is on display in the Museum.

Local Practitioner Ann O’Brien has exhibited her work in New York and has won awards for her work in the RDS craft show.

Contact organisation

Mountmellick Development Assoc. Ltd, Mountmellick Embroidery Museum