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Heymatt:

I was recently given some lovely lace handkerchiefs from my grandmother. Several of them have a gold sticker on them that proclaims "Genuine Irish Lace Made In China." How can it be "Genuine Irish Lace" if it is "Made In China?" My auntie suggested that perhaps "Irish" referred to the pattern of the lace rather than the location of its creation or the citizenship of its creator. If that is the case, then what do they mean by "Genuine?" Thanks for clearing this up. It's been wrinkling my brow for a week.

-- Unsigned, the net

Grandma Alice organized a scavenger hunt for the elves. Challenged them to find something in the house that wasn't made in China. Tougher than it sounds. They've already eliminated anything made of plastic or fabric and anything electrical. While they're rummaging in the attic, I'll shed what light I can on genuine Chinese Irish lace.

Let's start with the lace part. Traditional laces have been made in Europe for centuries. Local lace makers, say, in some burg in Belgium or shanty in France used weaving or needlework techniques and patterns that became associated with those regions and the lace acquired the regional names by tradition, not by law. So legally speaking, Irish lace doesn't really exist. The Chinese can make Irish lace and the Big Bopper can make Chantilly lace without being arrested.

So why do we think there's such a thing as Irish lace? Lace making as a cottage industry came to Ireland during the potato famine in the mid-1800s. Local nuns taught Irish women the art of lace making to help them produce some income for their starving families. Nuns had learned the techniques in France, Belgium, Italy, and other European countries already well known for lace making. When the huge floods of Irish immigrants came to the U.S. to escape starvation, they brought lace-making skills with them, and "Irish lace" became pretty much a cliché here. There isn't necessarily a common set of patterns or techniques that distinguish Irish lace, mostly because there isn't really any such thing. Lace made in Ireland or lace made by an Irishman would qualify. But so would any lace that any huckster wanted to call "Irish." (Ditto for Irish linen. If you don't get a DNA report with your bill of sale, the linen might have been made in China too.)

But don't think I'm making rude comments about your granny. China actually does figure into the story. The same missionary nuns who taught the Irish to make lace taught those skills in rural villages in China beginning in the 1880s. So there has been a tradition of lace making there for quite a while. I couldn't confirm it, but I have read that some of the nun's original lace-making centers are still active.

As for the "Genuine" part, well, I'm sure your lace was genuinely made in China. And there's some slim chance that it came from one of those old lace-making centers with a vague spiritual connection to Ireland. But it's no more genuine Irish lace than any other stuff called Irish lace. China has pretty much taken over the world's production of ribbons, laces, buttons, and other clothing trims. So lace from China is common. That's the best I could do to untangle the strange hanky label. And the elves are back with Eugene the dog. That's about the only thing they could guarantee wasn't made in China. Eugene was made in the back yard one night when the neighbor's mutt got loose.

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