Mountmellick Embroidery
The small town of Mountmellick, County Laois is the traditional home for this beautiful white on white embroidery. Now treasured, old pieces are collected and displayed, and the craft taught and practised far beyond the shores of Ireland...
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Embroidery workers
On a sunny Saturday in January 2000, a group of Mountmellick embroidery workers asssembled at the Presentation Convent. They enjoyed a cup of tea with Sister Teresa Margaret (far right) and spent some time admiring each other's projects.
more photos from that day:

Cathy Scott and Breda Condron

Peggy Daly, Ann Naughton and Mary Keating

Annie Kelly, Mary Ging and Rosemary Richardson

Sister Francesca and Betty Kinsella

Ann Holohan, Gemma Shaw and Agnes Conroy

Carmel Gorman and Ann Phelan-O'Brien

Pauline Hooks, Patsy McGuinness and Bridie Murphy

Sister Columbanus Kyne and Annie Kelly

Collete Dunne and Sister Teresa

Group Photos

Nature provides the inspiration for most Mountmellick work patterns, as in the blackberries shown above, but sometimes on commemorative work other motifs are used, such as harp and shamrocks.
Pattern Book
By the late 1800s, Mountmellick Embroidery was featured in variious needlework publications. Photocopies of these are kept at the Presentation convent, along with the old patterns...
Leaf patterns
Here, an old publication shows various ways of filling in leaves. Part of the charm of Mountmellick embroidery is the way each worker will devise their own ways of expressing the pattern. A simple leaf may be embroidered in countless ways...

Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy
What is Mountmellick Embroidery?
Mountmellick Embroidery is a dimensional white on white embroidery done in white knitting cotton on a heavy white cotton satin jean. Although sometimes referred to as 'Mountmellick lace', eyelids or open work are excluded. Motifs include a variety of natural floral designs, usually fairly large in scale, and pieces are often finished with buttonholed and fringed edges.

There are three embroidery stitches specific to Mountmellick work: the cable plait stitch, Mountmellick stitch, and the Mountmellick thorn stitch.

Other commonly used stitches include: bullion, long cable or cable chain, thorn, French knot, stem, blanket stitch or button hole (can be sawtooth, houndstooth or plain, with French knots in some cases), leaf fill, cable plait, satin (can be padded or couched), snail trail, chain, seeding, lazy daisy, feather stitch. Although many stitches are available, some of the best work make make use of only three or four...

Designs were originally inspired by plants growing along the local Owenass River bank: blackberries, acorns, dog rose, ivy, oak, barley, woodbine, wild clematis. Cultivated plants, such as passion flower, cyclamen, tiger lily, snowdrops and daffodils also appear frequently in the designs, and even butterflies, seashells, birds and bird nests... The passion flower seems to be a particular favourite among current workers...

The embroidery was traditionally done on tablecloths, coverlets, christening gowns, cushion covers, pillow shams, and laying out coverlets. Sometimes on old work, almost the entire surface of the material was embroidered. Today pieces are often framed, and may be given as a gift to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child...

The cloth may be a natural colour although bright white is traditional. The cloth is steeped overnight in cold water, then vigorously boiled to bring it up snowy white. One of the features of Mountmellick work is, in fact, its serviceability. It is meant to be used, and repeated washing has given older examples of the work a particular softness and 'patina'.

Being white on white, it is difficult to photograph... but in person one cannot help but admire the detailed stitches, and feel somewhat in awe of the amount of work that has gone into each piece. Many pieces are now viewed as family heirlooms, to passed from one generation to another.

How did Mountmellick Embroidery get started?
Joanna Carter is generally credited with creating Mountmellick Embroidery. In 1816, she received an award for developing new embroidery stitches at a prominent London Exhibition, and by 1825 was running a small school in a thatched cottage in Mountmellick, teaching young girls the craft. The early 19th century saw creative needlework developing nation-wide in Ireland: Limerick Lace, Carrickmacross Lace, and Muslin embroidery were being developed in various parts of the country. Mountmellick Embroidery seems to have been set up originally as a way to provide a trade for poor girls.

The craft has a long association with the Society of Friends (Quakers) who had opened a school in Mountmellick in 1786. (Another woman associated with its early development was Quaker Margaret Beale, an accomplished lacemaker from Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford.) Girls at the Quaker school were instructed in the embroidery work as a way to earn money for their books.

Mountmellick Embroidery became a popular ladies hobby in the Victorian era, shifting from a source of income to a middle-class social pasttime. Between 1880 and 1898, Weldon Publishers of London produced four volumes entitled Weldon’s Practical Mountmellick Embroidery, and a popular needlework publication in the US also featured the craft.

Mountmellick work declined in popularity as the 20th century wore on, and by the 1970s it seemed there were only a few older nuns at the Convent still remembering the stitches.

How was the craft 'revived'?
Many directly attribute the revival of the craft in the 1970s to the interest and enthusiasm of Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy. Born in Abbeyfeale, County Limerick, Sister Teresa has been in the Presentation Convent in Mountmellick since 1936. She is too modest to say so herself, but all the locals will tell you she is the authority on the embroidery and the spark behind the revival. (Sister Teresa was named a Laois Person of the Year in 2000 for her contributions to local culture and craft.)

'We hadn't a single sample in the house,' Sister Teresa recounts, 'until 1976. Mrs Hayes gave me a scrap, a little doily, and I tried to track down the material then.' Using an old book from the Convent she sorted out the stitches, and on request, soon began teaching them to others. Since then she has taught countless students, many of whom have gone on to become teachers themselves. Sister Teresa taught many classes during the 1990s at An Grianan, the residential college of the Irish Countrywoman's Association, at Termonfechin, County Louth, and gives them much credit for adding Mountmellick Embroidery to their syllabus.

As interest in the craft was renewed, old pieces of the work began appearing from attics and bureaus, and exhibitions were held during the 1980s in Mountmellick, Dublin and beyond. Although pieces are sometimes worked in colour, it is the traditional white on white embroidery that people were most anxious to examine up close, as photographs rarely do justice to the beautiful and intricate stitches and delicate buttonholing and fringework.

A trunk filled with old original Quaker patterns was donated to the Convent by the Pim family of Mountmellick. This has proved to be an invaluable resource, and many of the patterns found in the trunk were included in the 1985 publication Mountmellick Work: Irish White Embroidery by American Jane Houston-Almqvist. At classes today the old trunk is brought out and the original patterns copied and taken away.

Sister Teresa especially appreciates the social aspects of doing the embroidery, and hopes that it will remain a 'homely' craft. 'Given as a gift-- yes,' she says, but as to ever reviving its commercial possibilities, 'Its cost would make the eyes turn to heaven...'

Can I learn to do Mountmellick Embroidery?
Of course!

You can attend classes in Mountmellick itself... for more information, contact the Mountmellick Development Association in Ireland by phone at (0502) 24525.

The Irish Countrywomen's Association offers short-term residential courses on all sorts of Irish crafts at their college An Grianan at Termonfechin, Co. Louth.

Lastly, why not inquire at your own local needlework shop for available books or local teachers.

Where can I see examples?
Pieces are held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), The National Museum of Ireland (Dublin), The Ulster Folk Museum (County Down), The Ulster - American Museum (County Tyrone), The Historical Library at the Religious Society of Friends (Dublin), and the Muriel Gahan I.C.A. (Irish Countrywomen's Association) College, An Grianan, Termonfechin, Co. Louth.

Some beautiful examples of Mountmellick work from the past century are held at the Presentation Convent. Donations of old work are gratefully accepted, as plans are developing for a permanent exhibition space in the town...

Is the embroidery work available for sale?
Some Mountmellick embroiderers will work to commission... contact the Mountmellick Development Association (details above) for names and contact details. Remember though, that the embroidery is extremely labour intensive; a tablecloth may take one hundred hours or more, for instance. Older pieces of the work can sometimes be found alongside antiques in shops or at auctions.
* Very special thanks to Collette Dunne, Margaret Gorman, Annie Kelly and Sister Teresa Margaret McCarthy for generously sharing information for this article... and to all the other wonderful 'Mountmellick Embroidery Ladies' who were kind enough to show me their beautiful work.