Kells lace was started up and organised by Emma Colston (c. 1796-1877, neé Hubbert) and her husband, Henry Colston (c. 1798-1856). Kells lace was named after the town of Kells in County Meath, Ireland, where Emma Colston’s business was established.
Emma and her brother Henry Hubbert (c. 1791) were brought up at Kells and later went to Nottingham (England) with their father. She and Henry were trained by their father as lace manufacturer and lace runner/designer respectively. Apparently Emma started to learn lace designing in 1819 in Nottingham “wherein she studied and wrought until she became perfect mistress of [lace] business in theory and practice.”
At this time, machine made bobbinet was becoming very popular among lace manufacturers, especially in Nottingham, as it was possible to purchase both factory and home size machines. It would appear that when their father died in 1825, Henry Hubbert continued the family business in Nottingham, while Emma Hubbert went back to Ireland. Shortly afterwards Emma Hubbert purchased a bobbinet machine and in March 1825 she set up a lace manufactory in Kells. The type of lace being produced was embroidered net lace. Within a year she was employing eighty children. This number was to grow over the next decade.
After her marriage in c. 1827 many of the documents relating to Kells Lace were signed by her husband Henry Colston, but it would appear that his wife organised the business. In order to gain further support for Kells lace, in 1831 Emma Colston sent a dress made from Kells lace to Queen Adelaide (1792-1849; wife of George IV of Britain). In a reply from the court it said that the Queen thanked her for the dress, that the Queen felt obliged to pay for the dress, and “Her Majesty has been graciously pleased to direct me to prepare a Warrant appointing you Her Lace Maker in the Town of Kells.” In various official lists of “Tradespeople to Queen Adelaide,” dated between 1840 and 1844, the relevant (identical) entries about Emma Colson read: “Lace Manufacturers at Kells, in Ireland, Emma Colston and Henry Hubbert, Kells.” So it would appear that her brother was also involved in some manner with the production of net lace in Kells.
The Kells Lace business grew until it was employing over a hundred girls and women. It appears to have stopped in the late 1840’s due to the development of machines that could imitate the appearance of embroidered net lace, and which was considerably cheaper to create and sell. According to the Irish curator, Mairead Reynolds, the characteristic features of Kells lace are its use of cotton, two twist bobbinet (although very occasionally a 3-twist form can be found), using either white (off-white, pale cream) or black silk embroidery threads. The main embroidery techniques used were needle running with running stitches and satin stitches, and then tambour work for chain stitches.
The patterns produced in Kells lace were deliberately designed rather than being left to the whim of the embroiderer and were predominantly large scale floral and foliate designs. The range of items decorated with Kells lace included a wide range of trimmings (their main product), as well as bonnet veils, canzous (short capes covering the front and back of the wearer, but not their arms) collars, handkerchiefs, scarves, shawls and so forth. According to Reynolds, examples of Kells lace can be found in the National Museum of Ireland (Dublin).
See also the TRC Needles entry on Limerick run lace.
- The British Imperial Calender for the Year of Our Lord 1844, London: Arthur Varnham, p. 113. Retrieve here.
- REYNOLDS, Mairead (1984), ‘Kells Lace’, Irish Art Review, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 50-54. (available here) (retrieved 13th November 2015).
Digital source of illustration (retrieved 6 July 2016).