Saturday, November 28, 2020

Mountmellick Work
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Mountmellick Work[1]
This type of heavy white embroidery first originated in the town of Mountmellick in Ireland, hence its name.

Nestled at the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, Mountmellick was once known as the little Manchester of Ireland due to the presence of a large and diverse industrial base, which included flax and cotton mills. Traces of Mountmellick’s rich heritage as a Quaker settlement remain in its Victorian and Georgian architecture and warm friendliness of the people. During the 19th Century this quiet residential town gave its name to the world renowned Victorian White on White embroidery called Mountmellick Work. The Museum has built up a treasure trove of old and contemporary pieces of this magnificent work. Heirlooms of bed coverlets, pillow shams, tablecloths and nightdress cases survive today in excellent condition which is evident in the items on display in the museum. This embroidery is unique as it is the only form of embroidery that can claim to be entirely Irish in origin and design.

It was apparently invented by 'a lady from the Society of Friends, who taught to the peasants there as a means for them to earn a living. There are no drawn or open spaces in the work. The pattern appears in low relief as a raised white design on the surface of the material with very little thread showing on the wrong side.

Mountmellick work was favoured for pillow shams and cushion covers as, unlike lace, it was sturdy and washed well. Pillow sham worked by Margaret Tooby for her trousseau, ca. 1900.
Photograph courtesy of Katie Atkinson.

Motifs of flowers and leaves almost appear padded in the raised and textured look. It is a rugged embroidery, and in some circles was regarded as an embroidery undertaken by the lower classes, perhaps, in Australia, rejecting the separation in social standing of the English and Irish settlers.

On most 'carver' cloths were a knife and fork worked in white.
Photograph courtesy of Katie Atkinson.

One particularly interesting cushion cover in the collection of the Embroiderers' Guild of Victoria (Australia) was possibly used for tennis parties. Imperfectly done, it has a series of designs in formal squares, including a pair of crossed tennis racquets.

Pillow sham. Collection of the Embroiderers' Guild of Victoria. It is comprised of nine squares, each with a different image, made by three Irish ladies of Werribee, Victoria (Australia), ca. 1890-1900.
Photograph courtesy of Julie Millowick.

Detail of above.

Mountmellick work gives a very rich surface texture, is practical and washes well. The examples held in private homes have, therefore, usually lasted in good order. Large crewel needles are used with a fairly coarse cotton thread. Thirty-five stitches for Mountmellick work were described in Weldon's Encyclopedia of Needlework, which came to Australia in serial form in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The stitches most commonly found are Gordian knot stitch, thorn stitch, bullion stitch, double bullion, feather stitch, flake stitch, buttonhole stitch, trellis and French knot, faggot stitch, spot stitch, satin stitch and raised picot as well as buttonholing.

In varying the stitches on flowers and leaves, each leaf might be given a different treatment, and the flower petals themselves worked by a fine over-casting.

Waratah. Detail of embroidery by Thelma Crawford, Melbourne (Australia) 1940s. Thelma Crawford's designs appeared as popular kits in the 1940s and 50s in Melbourne.
Collection of the Embroiderers' Guild of Victoria.
Photograph courtesy of Julie Millowick.

The technique was commonly employed on pillow covers or shams. These shams were kept snowy white and had to be removed from the pillow each night. Lillie Tame made a pair of shams decorated with lillies in Mountmellick stitches in approximately 1908-1910. The family remember she would never allow her husband to remove them for fear he would make them dirty.

Antique vintage cotton satin pillow sham.

Two traditional Mountmellick cloths, commonly used until approximately 1940, were the bread cloth and the carver cloth. The former was usually embroidered with a sheaf of wheat and was used to protect the bread from flies or air.

Mountmellick bread cover.

The carver cloth usually, but not always, depicted a carving knife and fork in delicate raised stitch as well as the word 'carver'. This cloth was placed underneath the meat dish while the man of the house carved the meat; its function was to catch the splashes and drips from the meat and so protect the elegant white tablecloth beneath.

[1] J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Sydney (1991).