Why Irish crochet?


So I made this ridiculous pincushion [see photo]. I followed Linda Ligon’s pattern, which appeared in the totally fascinating magazine Piecework, which traces the history of various needle arts (knitting, crochet, embroidery, etc.). According to the pattern, this wee, 4″ square pincushion requires nearly 2000 crochet stitches, using the traditional Irish crochet technique. It’s supposed to take about 8 hours, with “just a few minutes” to stitch together the backing fabric for the cushion & then to stitch the crochet lace to the cushion. For me, the sewing part took more than a few minutes: altogether, crochet, hand-sewing the pincushion fabric, & then attaching the lace took about 10 hours. But it was a fascinating experience.

Why learn Irish crochet? Well, on a most basic level, I try to learn or try something new every summer, when I have time to let my schedule slip around a bit (or a lot), and have the mental space to really engage with something different from The Usual.  For the past few years, I’ve been teaching myself crochet. In other years it was botany, sewing, baking, canning, Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, whatever. Reading John Dewey in grad school made me believe in “learning by doing”– what we now call “experiential learning”– and I love having the summers to be this kind of student.

But I think that all this also connects with my research, which tries to take seemingly disparate aspects of American culture and show how they are, in fact, interconnected. What does Irish crochet have to do with comics? What do comics have to do with literature? What does literature have to do with Irish crochet? Or pincushions, for that matter?

So– for one thing, I guess I was interested in trying Irish crochet because it was one of the needlecrafts that was brought by Irish immigrant women to the U.S. In some ways, I am picturing the women doing this incredibly intricate crochet, while at the same time doing laundry and cooking for rich (not Irish) women. Meanwhile, their husbands, their Happy Hooligans, are acting the fool at their own menial jobs.

And one thing I learned: Irish crochet takes almost no thread to create this magically lacy, ornate little bijou of needlework. You could make this with regular old thread (I used size 30 mercerized cotton, which is almost, but not quite, thin enough to thread on a regular sewing needle). I bought one small (400 yd?) ball, and haven’t even come close to using half a ball. So, you get a lot of bang for your buck.

And as for literature, it made me think of Stephen Crane’s poor Maggie, Girl of the Streets, who makes a sad little lambrequin to put on the tenement mantel & adorns the tattered curtains with flowers. Perhaps she made them in Irish crochet.


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