Below is a picture of the crown of a baby’s bonnet, which is well over 100 years old. Its decorative needlework is a style of embroidery known as Ayrshire lace. Even though the main body is no longer there, the lace work still retains its original character. Apart from it surviving, what is special about this tiny piece of decorated fabric is the sheer length of time that went into producing it. Some of the tiny leaves could take at least a day’s work.
Ayrshire lace was first made in the early 19th century. The cottage industry of Ayrshire needlework began when Lady Mary Montgomery loaned a Mrs Jamieson, the wife of an Ayr cotton agent an exquisitely embroidered baby robe. Mrs Jamieson was taken by the sheer beauty of the garment, she copied the stitches and decided to teach local women the fine needlework. A needle-worker and excellent organiser she and her daughters formed the cottage industry called ‘Ayrshire Needlework’.
Original Ayrshire needlework or lace is sewn muslin, with cut-out pieces, finished with fine embroidery. It is popularly known as white-on-white embroidery, its beauty lies in the texture and contrast of fabric, stitching and cut-out. In its heyday, which was the early to mid nineteenth century the needlewomen could earn a shilling a day if they worked steadily. Those who specialised in lace stitches could earn far more. The workers often made samples, displaying the stitch sizes and varieties, as the price of the finished product depended on the amount of stitching and lace insets.
In Ireland we had our own type of white on white needlework, known as Mountmellick Embroidery or Lace. It began in 1816 around the same time Ayrshire lace was developed. This cottage industry, in the countryside of Co Laois, was started by Joanna Carter after she won an award for developing new embroidery stitches. Like Ayrshire needlework it declined towards the end of the Victorian era, but enjoyed a revival in the 1970’s.
Swain, Margaret H. Ayrshire and other whitework / Margaret Swain Shire Princes Risborough 1982
Thanks to Maureen Rose Rendell for providing the images and whose interest and expertise in the subject inspired this article