Although there was evidence of lacemakers in the area before the famine of 1845-1851, it is generally agreed that Cassandra Hand, wife of the local Church of Ireland rector the Rev. Thomas Hand, introduced the particular form of crochet lacemaking to Clones at a time when the area was still suffering great deprivation. Originally from the elaborate surroundings of Losely House, Surrey, UK, Cassandra Hand was shocked at the deprivations and poverty she encountered on her arrival to Ireland. She had, however, a head for business and arranged for teachers from Co. Kildare to teach a variation of Venetian Point Lace to the inhabitants of her new town. The Italian lace, originally bought to Co Cork by nuns, though very beautiful, was time-consuming and the Irish makers found that by using a crochet hook they could achieve the same effect in a much shorter time. A seven-inch piece of lace could be crocheted in about 20 hours, whereas the same piece would take around two hundred hours to sew! The Clones workers also made their own hooks out of sewing needles, with an eye cut out, stuck into a piece of cane or softwood, with a bale cord wrapped around it to soften it to the hand. These hooks later became known as ‘Famine Hooks’. The lace soon proved so popular that not only did families survive on the monies made, but Cassandra Hand was able to raise funds to build a school for infants and young girls from local Protestant families. This is now known as the Cassandra Hand Heritage Centre, on Ball Alley, Clones. Cassandra Hand is buried in the nearby parish of Clogh, Co Fermanagh, and the house she lived in, Bishopscourt, still survives today.
Clones lace makers reflected their own surroundings with motifs of shamrocks, ferns, thistles, wild roses, marigolds, cartwheels and whitewash brushes, joined by the distinctive ‘Clones Knot’ -a ball made by turning the hook ten to twelve times around the thread, hundreds of such ‘rolled dots’ having filled a piece of lace, joining the motifs. It is interesting that they have retained the grape and vine leaf motif as a thank you to the Italians for having given them the pattern from which their own lace evolved. It wasn't uncommon to see women sit along the narrow streets of Clones town in the evenings, with their white aprons, making the lace. The lace would be carefully wrapped in these aprons to be kept clean- it also meant the family pattern would also be kept secret.
Some travelled to teach their craft throughout Ireland, setting up centres in Counties Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Donegal. In the past, it was possible to recognise each family lace by the motifs used. Families such as the ‘Lily Quigleys’ and 'Rose McMahons' were known by the motif that they made, and in many cases, the males in the family often made lace also. Children were often sent walking many miles to the towns to local Lace Agents, who would purchase the lace, paying according to the quality and cleanliness. From there it made its way to the fashion house, to be made into dresses and items for the wealthy.
Roslea or Irish Crochet Lace is also common to the area but is made by an individual, whereas Clones Lace involved several workers. Shamrocks and Rose squares are joined in tablecloths, table centrepieces, and collars. The lace produce of the Clones and Roslea makers was delicately worked into the collars and cuffs of blouses and dresses, examples of such can be found today on display in the Clones Lace Museum. The lace used the same fine thread as the Clones pieces, and was known as ‘Fine Work’. The Clones work, because of its padded motifs and Clones Knot was known as ‘Heavy Work’. Roslea Lace replaced Clones Lace in the twentieth century as fashions changed. Over time, the knowledge of the how to make the various motifs once so popular unfortunately began to die out, as lacemaking families emigrated or passed away, and lace popularity fell from fashion. In the 1990s the lace was revived by several dedicated women, and today is still made by a few. An international summer school takes place in Clones every June.