Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mountmellick - Irish Whitework, Naturally.

I had been hoping to find a piece of genuine Irish 'Mountmellick' embroidery for some time, and suddenly there it was, right at the bottom of a cardboard box of old linen, bought at auction recently. This was a nightdress case, heavily embroidered with whitework flowers and leaves on a heavy, almost satiny cotton. It even had the characteristic fringed edge, although that had suffered some damage, as had the body of the case, which was missing a corner. It looked a bit as though someone or something had taken a wee bite out of it! But the embroidery itself was mercifully free from faults, and as beautiful as I had hoped it would be, complete with oak leaves, acorns, grapes and passion flowers.

It was, seemingly, the natural plants which grew along the Owenass River which inspired these designs: blackberries, oaks and acorns, roses, woodbine, wild clematis. Passion flowers seems to have been a favourite cultivated plant to be depicted, while butterflies and seashells are sometimes found. The pieces were useful as well as beautiful, and most Mountmellick can be washed, even at high temperatures. In fact you will often find that the more a piece is laundered, the better it looks, with a softness and patina that is hard to fake.

The history of Mountmellick, is part of the wider history of lacemaking in Ireland. One Joanna Carter received an award in 1816 for developing new embroidery stitches and by 1825 she had set up a small school in Mountmellick, County Laois, to teach the skills to the young women of the district. Like many of these industries, it was thought to be a good way of encouraging women to contribute to the economy of the family. In the early 19th century we find a genuine movement to set up schools of needlework and lace in Ireland with Limerick and Carrickmacross Laces, as well as impossibly fine Irish crochet, Irish whitework, and of course, Mountmellick itself.

It fascinates me how much of this obviously Irish embroidery and lace turns up here in the West of Scotland. Sometimes it seems as though every other piece of lovely old linen is decorated with shamrocks, or of obvious Irish provenance, like my piece of Mountmellick. I only wish the textiles could tell me their stories. But somewhere at the back of my mind is a vision of a woman who learned her craft at home in Ireland, but who - like some of my own forebears - crossed the sea, in search of work, a viable way of life, or even an escape from famine. I think about her quite a lot. Was she homesick, here in Scotland? When she stitched the flowers of the Owenass River, so beautifully into her nightdress case, did she still think of that place as home? When she worked those fine white shamrocks into the fine white linen of a small tablecloth, was she thinking of Ireland? Who was she? And above all, why did nobody remember, and keep these precious textiles in the family? It makes me quite sad to think of her, but at least the work of her hands is still loved and appreciated, usually by other women, all these years later.
For more information about Mountmellick embroidery, go to

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Caring for Vintage Scottish and Irish Linens

There is something at once poignant and magical about buying - as I so frequently do - boxes of old linen at auction. They are my first and best love, and I've collected them along with other textiles for many years, as well as more recently setting up an online shop so that other fans of old linen and lace can browse, and perhaps add to their own collections. Because these domestic textiles tend to be under appreciated (and somewhat neglected) here in South West Scotland, I often find myself having to give them a great deal of TLC before they are fit to be seen. Some of them arrive clean and starched and sweet, but so many of them have been stuffed into trunks and boxes and horrible old suitcases for years on end: they can be crumpled, stained, dusty, dirty and extremely smelly, if the truth be told. I look upon the process of preparing them as a rescue mission, and it is extremely time consuming - but fascinating too. Even though you have a good rummage on viewing days, you are never quite sure what you might be going to find at the bottom of the box. Mostly it will be a miscellany of rather ordinary crochet doilies, but just occasionally something more interesting turns up.
They all have to be sorted, examined, assessed. Can they be soaked in a solution of stain remover or are they just too delicate? Chlorine bleaches are out of course but there are some wonderful new products on the market which are much gentler. Big damask tablecovers and linen bedding can withstand high temperature washes. Some of the more delicate, lacy or whitework pieces need gentle soaking, hand washing, and rinsing with the shower - rubbing and squeezing of old and delicate fibres can do real damage. I know somebody who simmers old muslin baby dresses in a saucepan with soap, and claims that it is very effective, but I haven't ever had the courage to try it for myself. Nevertheless, when occasionally presented with a baby gown or something similar which is so stained and discoloured as to be almost beyond rescue, I have experimented with successive soakings, and changes of water, over quite a long period - 24 or even 48 hours, before washing, with a fair amount of success.
Dirt, in the fibres of an old piece can do real damage, so your vintage and antique linens should be kept as clean as possible. Lavender in the shape of bags, or a few drops of oil in your ironing water, will deter moths, and keep your linens smelling fresh and sweet. Keep delicate pieces out of direct sunlight, and if you are storing them for any length of time, use acid free tissue to wrap them. But I am of the opinion that we should be using these lovely old linens, to dress a table, or a bed. They have been created with great skill, by women who are long gone; they are a lovely tactile link with the past, and by using and admiring them we are somehow acknowledging all the talent that went into making them so many years ago.

Friday, August 11, 2006

New Scottish Home Website

My apologies to any regular visitors for the slight gap in posts. This is because we have been setting up a companion website to this blog, also called The Scottish Home. It should be going live within the next week or so. It is a very visual and quirky site, with sections on Scottish country houses, town houses, gardens and collectables. You will find it crammed with images, and snippets of information about Scotland. We will be changing it to reflect the changing seasons, and showing a very personal selection of all kinds of Scottish homes from cottages to castles, and their gardens, both ancient and modern. We will be exploring interiors, both traditional and contemporary and we will be looking at the hidden histories of some of Scotland's cities, towns and villages. You will also find Scottish crafts, textiles and collectables, as well as links to our eBay shop where you can buy some of them, if you want.
This blog will remain as the regularly updated companion diary/ magazine to the website. It is here that you will find longer articles about all things Scottish, from traditional customs and beliefs, to explorations of rare Scottish textiles and their history. And of course there will also be a good helping of fiction, because wearing my other 'hat' as a novelist and playwright I generally find that Scotland figures largely in my work.