A Stitch in Time at the Museum

Clare Champion, Friday, August 25, 2006

By Jessica Quinn

Much like the threads of time link the past with the present, a new exhibition of Clare Embroidery, currently running at the Clare Museum, creates a tangible link with the Clare of yesteryear. The pieces displayed in the exhibition have been donated to the Clare Museum by Veronica Rowe, grand-daughter of the founder of Clare Embroidery Mrs Florence Vere-O’Brien. And while some of the embroidered pieces in the exhibition are over 100 years old, their style is timeless and would not look out of place in some boutiques today. “They were always very with it, they must have been because they sold everything they had,” Veronica told me at the launch of the exhibition.

And the connections don’t just end with the pieces’ contemporary look, an embroidery class using designs and materials provided by Mrs Vere-O’Brien herself was established in the Convent of Mercy back in the late 1800s – the same building which is now the Clare Museum. “These were younger girls, not the older girls who would be working on Clare Embroidery, and my grandmother helped with the designs worked up by the girls under Sister Mary Patricia’s direction. Unfortunately, there are very few records of the convents left apart from some in the Sisters of Mercy Library in Dublin. And in fact, when they had an anniversary recently they contacted me for information,” said Veronica. “I always felt that this collection should be shown here, all of the items were made in the locality and they were all Clare girls and we can see from their descriptions of working for Clare Embroidery that they loved it. It was fun and they got to earn some money and at that time there wasn’t much for a lot of girls,” she said.

The exhibition was last shown in Clare County Library in 1985 but it has now been given a whole new look with the use of colourful text panels and photographs to illustrate the amazing story behind the embroidery. Veronica came across this unique record of the Clare Embroidery industry while looking through her grandmother’s papers following the death of her aunt Flora Vere O’Brien. However, she was always aware of the impact of Clare Embroidery on her family’s life. “What is featured in this exhibition has always been in my house, in fact, in my room at the moment there are two or three table cloths made from Clare Embroidery and so is my bedspread, I grew up with it and I always knew about it. When my aunt died I went through diaries and papers and found a lot more information and after some time I thought of showing it,” she explained.

The first Clare Embroidery class began at Newhall near Ennis in 1895 when the Vere-O’Briens moved there after Florence’s husband Robert took a job as a clerk of the peace in the courthouse. Before coming to Newhall, Florence had become involved in the revival of the Limerick lace craft and helped set up the Limerick Lace Training School, taking over the running of the school in 1893 and renaming it The Limerick Lace School. She continued to run the school alongside Clare Embroidery for many years. Not only was she an accomplished needlewoman, but Florence was an artist of considerable ability, creating all of the designs known as Clare Embroidery. Her original inspiration was the French peasant embroiderers with Florence refining the theme to reflect the delicate wild flowers of Clare.

Veronica told how the embroidery class was established in response to the plight of families who found it hard to make ends meet. “My grandmother was a person who was very talented, very artistic and she came from a sort of Quaker background in Yorkshire where if you were knowledgeable in one area you passed it on, it was a sort of ethic. She did it because she loved it and she wanted other people to enjoy and make the most of their lives,” said Veronica.

The Vere O’Brien family moved to Ballyalla House in 1898 and the Clare Embroidery class continued there with some of the Newhall girls attending along with local girls. Holding the post of manageress of the business was Mina Keppie, a practical Scottish woman who came to the Vere-O’Brien family as a lady’s maid and to help with the children. She was still with the family until she died aged 96.

The girls came to the classes once a week, some of them walking or cycling five or six miles to get there. They worked at a long table with the sewing supervised by Mina Keppie while the designs were drawn by Florence. “The whole industry was based on creating useable things, everything had to be washable and they got the best of threads. This wasn’t anything like the lace industry, they were creating things that could be used like aprons, cushion covers and pinafores. “The items were entered for competitions which exposed them to the buying public and they won many awards. Following an exhibition in Windsor in 1902, an order came for 12 smocked dresses for Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. My grandmother was a stitcher of quality, everything had to be well drawn and well made and the girls had to do quite a bit of training before they were good enough to enter competitions,” said Veronica.

Florence continued with the Clare Embroidery class until her death in 1936. However, the popularity of the style continues to endure as is evident from the level of interest in the Clare Museum exhibition.

John Rattigan, museum curator told me, “Before we even announced the launch, I had received a number of calls about this exhibition so I knew there was a lot of interest out there. When these pieces were last shown in the library in 1985, there was a huge response and a subsequent lecture that Veronica gave a few years ago was also a great success. We are thrilled to have this exhibition here. It’s local and it is an important piece of social history and I would like to thank Veronica.” He also revealed that a lecture by Veronica about Clare Embroidery is being planned by the Clare Archaeological and Historical Society to take place in the museum in October. “This exhibition will be running throughout autumn so people will have a chance to listen to the lecture and see the exhibit at the same time which is a first for us.”

The Rev Bob Hanna and Sonia Schormann at the opening of the Clare Embroidery Exhibition
The Rev Bob Hanna and Sonia Schormann at the opening of the Clare Embroidery Exhibition.
Photo: Gerry Leddin.

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