Ayrshire Needlework in the Ards

Author: Linda M Ballard

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


Linda M Ballard

As the name implies, Ayrshire work originated in Scotland, and is credited to a Mrs Jamieson, wife of a merchant, whose close study and unpicking of a piece of French embroidery is said to have led to her establishing a new craft skill and trade in her home area in the early nineteenth century. Certainly, large quantities of beautiful white embroidery of this type were produced in Scotland in the first half of the nineteenth century, and Mrs Jamieson is listed as one of the ladies taking orders in or before 1830. By that date, Ayrshire work (for which needleworkers could be trained in three months) was being “put out” to women in the Ards Peninsula of County Down.

The primary reason for its prevalence in the Ards Peninsula is the short sea crossing and close commercial and social contacts between the east coast of Ireland and the west of Scotland, particularly between Portpatrick and Donaghadee. It seems there was a ready capacity among local women to produce this lovely form of embroidery, which was in great demand as a fashionable type of decoration for garments and accessories for women and for children. Perhaps the most common sort of garment in which Ayrshire work survives is the christening or dookin gown, often passed through generations of a family. White garments were considered since ancient times to be essential for this ceremony, but the Ayrshire decorated dresses which continue in wear may not originally have had solely ritual uses, but may have been kept for conspicuous best wear in an era when these were fashionable.

For needlework enthusiasts, or perhaps for the owner of an heirloom christening dress, it may be useful to describe the characteristics of Ayrshire work. Ayrshire work is technically a very demanding form of embroidery. It is done with white thread, generally on high quality muslin lawn of exceptional fineness: in other words, on a cotton rather than a linen base. It is worth remembering that it is typical of the early part of the nineteenth century, when cotton production flourished, and when this was widely woven even locally. Designs are beautiful and elegant, and while themes are often drawn from nature, the patterns are generally classical and quite stylised in appearance. The work is small in scale, and often densely embroidered over the ground. Much of the design is worked in satin stitch, but other stitches are also employed, as are beautiful lace work fillings, which may feature either pulled thread work or filled stiletto piercings. Sometimes the decorative filling stitches are replaced with insertions of darned net. Button hole stitch is essential, as edges and scallops are finished with tiny work of this sort.

Ayrshire work was established in the Donaghadee area by 1830, when the firm of Cochrane was distributing fabric for embroidery to local women. Women worked in their own homes, fitting in their needlework along with their many other chores and duties, and embroidery often made a very substantial contribution to family income. Indeed, families headed by a widow may have found themselves dependent on their abilities as fine needlewomen. Little girls were introduced to embroidery from an early age, perhaps as young as five or six. Embroideresses received all work stamped out on flat sheets of fabric, so that an entire christening gown would be marked out for completion. The hem even of the back of the very full and ultimately finely gathered skirt, usually scalloped and often with a design of tiny satin stitch dots or of similar work, would have to be buttonholed, in addition to working the elaborate decoration for the front panels of bodice and skirt. Sleeves and front flounces (which are usually referred to as robings) would also be embroidered. The local agent or manufacturer would hand out the work — collars, baby caps, handkerchiefs or whatever was currently in demand — and would generally collect this a week later, delivering fresh work and issuing payment for finished work. Sometimes embroideresses received their payment not in cash but in kind, bartering their needlework for a week’s groceries. There has been quite a lot of controversy about whether or not needlewomen worked outdoors when weather permitted, but it seems very likely that they took advantage of the sunshine when they could, and in Scotland reference is made to the Floo’erin Stanes on which they sat outside their homes in order to do their embroidery. Floo’erin makes reference to the picturesque term flowering by which embroidery is often known, a term which relates both to the floral subjects often featured in embroidery design and to the fact that fabric is embellished by the addition of embroidery.

By the early 1830s, Cochrane had established a business in Glasgow, in cooperation with another merchant called Brown, so the potential for Ayrshire embroidery in County Down and beyond must have been very considerable to this comparatively early date. Among the important developments for which Cochrane and Brown were responsible seems to have been the discovery of a method of using lithography to print embroidery designs onto fabric. This appears to have happened in or around 1837. Prior to this, wood blocks were generally used to stamp the design onto the material to be embroidered.

It is very clear that local women were highly skilled in the production of exquisite needlework in the decades before the Famine, and during the 1840s fine needlework continued to be produced. It is important to remember this fact, as there is a tendency to believe that high quality work could not have been made in Ireland at that date, a mistake which sometimes leads to local work being attributed to European, particularly French, sources. The fact that French needlework may have been the source upon which Ayrshire work was originally based would help to account for this, but travellers in pre-Famine Ireland have noted the skills of local embroideresses and comment that their work equals and often excels that produced in France at the time. Embroidery was a highly specialised craft, so that a piece might be passed from needlewoman to needlewoman in order that each could work her own particular skill as required by the design, As many as seven people might contribute to the work on a high quality handkerchief.

As with most fashions, the taste for Ayrshire work declined with the passage of time, and in the later nineteenth century other types of lace and embroidery became more popular. One reason for this was the invention in Switzerland of a machine which could copy the style of Ayrshire work quite closely, but much faster than the delicate and intricate handwork could be produced. Local women diversified, but their work often continued to be described as floo’erin or flowering, a skill for which the Ards peninsula and other regions long retained a high reputation. It is clear that the skills specifically associated with Ayrshire work, especially in the glorious lace fillings, were not lost to the women of the Ards. Early in the twentieth century, a Belfast linen firm produced a magnificent cambric linen cloth decorated with an embroidered border of peacocks, peacocks in their pride being stitched into each corner. Peacocks became popular as a design motif for embroidery in the 1890s, and the cloth referred to, which is now in the collection of the National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland situated at Cultra, uses them in a wonderful and fashionable art nouveau pattern. The tails of the peacocks are worked using the filled stiletto piercings which feature so magnificently in Ayrshire work, and the cloth was passed from embroideress to embroideress, just as earlier pieces were. It is known that the embroidery was done by women from the Ards area, and one of them, a fisherman’s wife, Martha Cooper, is personally remembered as having done some of the fine work. Appropriately, the French connection was maintained, as the cloth was exhibited and took a prize in Paris.



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