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Click to enlarge: A fine cambric cloth, embroiderd in the Ards Peninsula, Co Down for the firm of Henry Matier and Co whose chief designer was awarded first prize for design at the Paris exhibition of 1904.

Although most often associated with fine white embroidery on linen, the North of Ireland has a long tradition of stitching on fine cotton, dating from the eighteenth century. 

The introduction of power looms in the mid–nineteenth century revolutionised the weaving of linen and the resulting vast quantities of cloth were given extra commercial value, and status, with the application of hand embroidered designs.

Click to enlarge: Three pincushions. Pinstuck, lace-edged, and embroidered.  Late nineteenth century.

A huge network of agents and outworkers satisfied the demand for high-quality table linens and dress accessories. This system was also employed to great effect, particularly in the Ards Peninsula of Co. Down, to meet the needs of Scottish-based and local firms engaged in producing fine collars, cuffs, bonnets and christening robes featuring the delicate and precise Ayrshire embroidery known throughout Ulster as ‘flowering’, or ‘sprigging’.

The collections and archives at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum contain many examples of finished work in addition to outworkers sample pieces and original designs on paper. The most significant collection is a group of over 600 embroidered, lace trimmed, and printed handkerchiefs from the early twentieth century, featuring the designs of the Belfast artist Herbert R. Lilley.

Click to enlarge: A womans sleeve of fine white muslin, decorated with hand embroidered cutwork.  Mid – nineteenth century.

A collection of 80 embroidered samplers, dating from 1760 to 1953, school needlework sample books, and a range of needlework tools provide an insight into embroidery as worked for hobby or pleasure, rather than for profit.