Borris Lace is a tape lace. The machine-made tape is sewn down to form the pattern and decorative needle lace fillings are used to fill the gaps. Its flowing designs are based on natural shapes.
The Borris Lace industry was established in the mid 1840s under the direction of Lady Harriet McMorrough Kavanagh. Income from lace making relieved poverty for local women during the ravages of the Great Famine (1846-1848). Lady Harriet was well travelled and there are theories as to how she may have been influenced by the lace she came across in her travels, old Greek Lace, Venice, Genoese and Milanese lace. Lady Harriet was artistic and drew the designs herself. She then taught women on the estate how to work them. Her son Arthur (known as "The Cripple Kavanagh") married his cousin Frances Forde Leithley in 1855. Frances took over the management of the lace industry after her marriage with the same interest and enthusiasm as her mother-in-law. Sponsorship of the lace industry was a responsibility passed down to each new mistress of the estate, from Mrs. Frances Kavanagh to Mrs. Helena Kavanagh and Mrs. Mina Alice McMorrough Kavanagh until it finally closed in the 1960s.
At the height of the industry, lace orders were received from wealthy patrons in Ireland and England. There were also large orders from America and the Continent. The lace was used in household items such as table cloths and bed linen and in items of clothing.
An attempt was made in the 1930s by Fr. Murphy parish priest in Borris to revive the flagging Borris lace making industry by organising exhibitions in Dublin. He had some success in obtaining enough orders to keep a few lace makers employed. Changing fashions and the Second World War resulted in decline in demand for lace and the destruction of the Belgian lace making factories and reduction of output from the Nottingham Factories made it difficult to source the tape. In the 1960 there were only six lacemakers left in the village and most of their work was exported to America.
The ICA attempted to revive the Borris lace making craft in the 1990s. There was no Irish Borris Lace teacher at that time so they engaged Faith Green, a Branscombe lace teacher from Plymouth in England. Faith had some knowledge of Borris Lace from Mrs. Corrigan, a Borris Lace teacher who had conducted a class in the English Lace School at Rockbeard in Devon some years earlier. Ena Atkinson who attended the classes with Faith Green continued to work the lace, and for many years worked to revive interest through exhibitions, magazine articles, demonstrating and teaching.
Since her first visit to see the lace at Borris House in 1985, Australian, Marie Laurie has been hugely instrumental in the revival of this indigenous Borris craft. Along with Annette Meldrum, she has catalogued and documented the lace collection in Borris House. Their book ‘The Borris Lace Collection, A Unique Irish Needlace’ (2010) is the first documentation of Borris Lace techniques. Gaining enthusiasm from her workshop in Borris House in 2016, Borris Lacemakers was established with a commitment to reviving this important lace heritage and keeping it alive for future generations.
Common Threads – Lace Across the Border 2020
In spring 2020 COVID 19 was wreaking havoc across much of the world. With little scientific knowledge of this virus, and no vaccine in sight, Ireland went into total lockdown. For many this enforced confinement within the home led to a resurgence of traditional crafts such as baking, needlework, and knitting. It was against this backdrop that Borris Lacemakers were invited to participate in a collaborative project with the South Armagh Lace Collective.
This collaborative project ‘Common Threads – Lace Across the Border’ was supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. This department operates a scheme of funding support for projects which seek to enhance, celebrate or commemorate the artistic, cultural, musical, film or heritage of the Island of Ireland on a North/South basis.
‘Common Threads’ involved each group creating a wall-hanging consisting of 19 lace squares on a quilted background, with one square dedicated to the other groups lace. The squares on the completed wall hanging are a mixture of both traditional and new designs.
In its entirety the project comprised of three separate elements, the wall hanging, a bio of each participating lace maker, and a series of films featuring their personal experiences of lacemaking. As each square on the wall hanging held a special significance to the lace maker who created it, their personal stories which feature in this photobook and in the film-series are both interesting and informative.
Initially it had been hoped that both groups would be able to meet in person during the collaboration. By the end of the summer, with a second lockdown looming, it became obvious that this was not to be. Plans were put in place for a virtual launch of the project which was streamed live on the shared project’s YouTube channel Common Threads – Lace Across the Border on Saturday 24 October at 3pm. This event was extremely successful, and continues to attract viewers from across the world.
Borris Lacemakers would like to express our gratitude to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for funding this project with the support of the Northern Ireland Funding Scheme. We would also like to thank the Newry, Mourne and Down Council for their involvement in this venture through their AON and Geopark Team working in the Ring of Guillion area. Finally, special thanks to the South Armagh Lace Collective for their friendship and support during this project.