A Blackwork Embroidery Primer

Rissa Peace Root © 2004, 2007 , 2009 all rights reserved.

First, let me say, there is some excellent information on Blackwork already available on the Internet.  That said, I hope that this article can offer something of value, even if it is just a greater curiosity about Blackwork or the troubled timing of its flowering in England.  

Background Information

The following excerpt from Lady Roxanne's Blackwork Article is one of my favorite descriptions of Blackwork:

"Blackwork is black, except when itís not. Blackwork is reversible, except when itís not. Blackwork is a counted thread technique, except when itís not. Blackwork is called ďblackwork,Ē except (you guessed it) when itís not."

Blackwork gets its name from the black silk thread traditionally used in this form of counted thread embroidery.  Blackwork has been through many incarnations, but the most common types employ simple stitches to create complex scrolling or geometric patterns.  The first such patterns were comprised of all horizontal and vertical stitches, without any diagonal lines to make shifts.  All turns were at a forty-five degree angle which gave it a very square look.  Today, virtually all Blackwork patterns employ diagonal stitched for style and design purposes.  Red silk was the most popular alternative color and such work was sometimes referred to as Scarletwork.  Because it is a counted method that requires precise geometric alignment, even weave (same number of warp and weft fibers per inch) fabric such as linen is the best choice.  Blackwork employs just a few simple stitches to create complex designs with great eye appeal.  Black on white embroidery dates back many centuries in various cultures all over the world, but what came to be know as Blackwork, the scrolling designs that adorned clothing, especially sleeves, cuffs and collars reached its peak during the reign of King Henry VIII.  It is often said that Blackwork became so popular in Tudor England was because it was a less expensive alternative to lace, but more likely, it was popular due to the sumptuary laws that prevented anyone except for ranking nobility from wearing frivolous or excessive clothing.  [1]

The introduction of this type of Blackwork to England is frequently attributed to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, who was sent to England at the tender age of sixteen to be wed to Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII.  She was young and pretty and well received among the English Court.  Arthur died shortly after their marriage, which was never consummated.  Catherine was caught in the middle of dramatic political wrangling between Henry and her father King Ferdinand.  There was mutual attraction between Catherine and Prince Henry (younger brother to Arthur), despite their six year age difference, and Ferdinand wanted to negotiate a union, but things were not to proceed smoothly.  It was not until after the death of Henry VII that the newly crowned Henry VIII was able to actually marry Catherine and she finally took her place as Queen of England.  She was well loved for many decades, but her story did not have a happy ending.  Although she was pregnant many times over the years, and even gave birth to a few boys, her only surviving child was Mary Tudor.  When the King asked Catherine for an annulment, so that he could legally marry his young mistress Anne Boleyn, she steadfastly refused.  Henry punished Catherine for her refusal and took away her home, her place in society, and even her daughter.  When the pope refused to annul the marriage, and Catherine refused to enter a convent, the Church of England was formed, with King Henry as its supreme leader.  He granted himself a divorce and married a pregnant Anne.  To his great disappointment, she bore a girl.  Their daughter, Elizabeth would eventually become Queen.  Unfortunately, Anne Boleyn would not live to see her daughter crowned, since Henry had her beheaded just a few years after taking their vows.  

It was Catherine's love of lace and embroidery combined with keen fashion sense that appealed to the English people, even before she was Queen.  Catherine was educated in many disciplines including the "wifely arts." [2]  She was an accomplished embroiderer and many people believe she herself embroidered some of the King Henry's tunics.  The sudden rise in popularity of the reversible scrolling designs on collars and cuffs was certainly due in part to her influence.  In the early 1500s, Blackwork had a distinctly Spanish feel, which explains why it was often referred to as Spanysshe Work.  The black and white scrolling designs had an obvious Moorish influence, hence the term "arabesque" is often employed in the description of such designs.  Since Catherine spent her formative years in Spain and was exposed to Moorish art, architecture and textiles, it is easy to see how the association between her and Blackwork would be made.  However, it is important to note that she merely helped create fascination with this style of embroidery; she did not invent it.  The Blackwork of this period, looked like lace and was reversible, since both sides would be subject to viewing if it adorned cuffs, coifs and collars.  Hans Holbein the Younger, court painter to Henry VIII, meticulously documented these embroideries.  Holbein was not only the royal portrait artist, he was the person responsible for designing the kings robes, buttons, linens and other household goods. [3] It was his attention to detail and the unfailing vanity of the nobility, that allows us a look back at this phenomenon and it is in his honor that the double running stitch is also called the Holbein Stitch.

It was Elizabeth who was responsible for the next shift in how Blackwork would be perceived.  Like Catherine, she too was an accomplished embroiderer.  Elizabeth brought a more traditional English design theme to this style, utilizing fruits, flowers and herbs as central design elements in her Blackwork.  Each segment was outlined and then worked with complicated geometric designs, with contrasts of dark and light created by the different fill patterns.  This type of Blackwork was not reversible and was no longer confined to cuffs and collars.  The advent of printing presses offered Elizabethan embroiderers a wide variety of design ideas.  Flora and fauna were common elements for black and white plates, which could then be used in embroidery designs.  The very nature of black on white print made it an easy transition to black and white embroidery. During the Tudor/Elizabethan periods, many people wore clothing adorned in Blackwork, regardless of gender.  Despite the political imbroglio, the wealthy persisted in the daily pursuits of life and there was unprecedented prosperity under the reign of Elizabeth which made silk available to a wider audience.  Clothing connoted status and these people were consumed by it! The royals of the 16th and 17th century were often painted wearing costumes that were heavily embroidered.  No one more so than Queen Elizabeth, whose royal wardrobe is still the subject of discussion.  It is these surviving portraits and royal documents which explain how this form of embroidery became so intimately associated with the Tudor/Elizabethan periods.  In an era when most every woman was skilled with a needle and thread, Blackwork was fashionable.

Blackwork fell from favor as a fashion item in the Stuart period, but it persisted in samplers throughout the next two centuries.  When Blackwork was revived, it was once again transformed.  During the 19th and 20th centuries, in addition to the scrolling work and outlined objects filled in with geometric designs, Blackwork was often used to depict scenes, reminiscent of pen and ink drawings, a phenomenon closely related to the Elizabethan desire to recreate black and white plates from books.  Some of the most interesting Blackwork I have seen are renditions of bridges and old homes, that look drawn more than stitched.  Blackwork seems to be popular with more experienced stitchers, despite the fact that it is actually quite simple to master.  It does not have the same broad appeal to novice stitchers that Cross Stitch and Redwork command.  However, there is a group of people outside of the embroidery mainstream, who have contributed greatly to the documentation and current revival of more traditional Blackwork.   Participants in Renaissance Fairs and the Society for Creative Anachronism use Blackwork to create period costumes.  It is very popular with them for the same reason it was popular in the past, it looks fabulous and rich, but is relatively easy and inexpensive to produce.  There are many websites with traditional designs available for this purpose.  Since their costumes have to be practical, many SCA members have switched from silk on linen to cotton on cotton.  Their dedication to preservation of the past and to sharing that knowledge has helped us all.

Stitches Used

Even though the over all effect of Blackwork is ornate, most of the stitches are simple, but they are worked in such a way that conveys complexity.  

holbein.jpg (149317 bytes)Double Running Stitch - The running stitch was often done in such a way that the work was reversible.  This is also called the Holbein stitch, the Spanish stitch, line stitch and writing stitch.  It gives a smoother line than backstitch and is easily worked on even weave fabric.  If you do not have a stitch dictionary, click on the image to the right. 

Other stitches used are: Stem Stitch, Back Stitch, Split Stitch, Algerian Eye, Bosnia Stitch, Double Cross Stitch, running stitch, and the list goes on...because of its many incarnation, there are a variety of stitches that can be used to create the complex patterns or reversible scrolling designs.

Thread

Any thread, in any color can be used. However, black silk embroidery thread or floss is my first choice.   Today, it is common for people to use regular six-strand cotton embroidery floss (DMC 310) .    

Fabric

A high thread count linen or cotton, preferably even weave.  Usually worked on 18 count or higher, but many books recommend 22 (also known as Hardanger).  Aida cloth is acceptable, but there is a wide range of linens available are reasonable cost.

You can use any fabric, like silks and satins, if you employ waste canvas while working the design.  

Needle

Any fine needle with an eye big enough to accommodate the thread of your choice can be used, but I tend to prefer sharps and often use betweens in a size 10 or size 9.  Since this is worked on even weave, you may prefer a size 24 or 26 blunt tapestry needle, like those used for cross stitch and needlepoint.  The Holbein stitch will only really lay flat if you use a sharp and stab through the existing stitches on your way back across a shape.  This is not an exact science, experiment with a few needle choices to see which works best for the technique you prefer.

Hoop

A hoop or frame is completely optional, but very helpful with this type of hand work.

Design Transfer Methods

Transferring a design for Blackwork is different, because this is a counted method, that utilizes charts.  

The easiest way to deal with a charted design is to find the middle of the chart and the middle of your fabric and begin from the inside out.  If you start at an edge, you may waste fabric or fail to leave enough for a finished item.  

Remember that basting lines are sometimes called life lines for a reason!  It helps to do some two over two or four over four running stitches before you start. 

If you are doing a complex geometric design, do a rough outline of where the design elements will be, then work each one as a separate entity, always starting in the middle.

Design Sources

Design sources on the web are plentiful for Blackwork, mostly due to the enthusiasm of members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).  In the process of recreating clothing and costumes from the Elizabethan era, they have uncovered some wonderful information and patterns.  Paula Marmor published several books of Blackwork patterns, which are now long out of print, so she has graciously made many of the lovely patterns available on her website, The Blackwork Archives.  

If you feel creative, get out some graph paper and start drawing geometric eye pleasing designs.  You may come up with something both beautiful and unique. 

Tip and Tricks:

  • Use even weave fabric when possible.
  • Mark the center of your fabric with a single strand of embroidery floss in long running stitches along both the vertical and horizontal axis.  
  • Use waste canvas if you want to do Blackwork on fabric without a weave.
  • If you are constructing a garment, wash the fabric and soak the thread prior to stitching.  You would not want the designs to pucker if there is shrinkage.  
  • Use a piece of graph paper to construct your own designs.
  • Collars and cuffs look especially good when embellished with Blackwork.  
  • For scrolling designs, mark the center of the design with pins or loose running stitches before you begin work and work from the inside out.  
  • For outlined shapes, filled with geometric designs, mark the center of each element and work it from the inside out.  This will be necessary to make sure the patterns are symmetrical.
  • If you want your work to be reversible, make sure to use a waste knot or start with a running stitch, then reverse over it for a few stitches in order to secure it.
  • If want your work to be reversible, but are having trouble making it work, try this to help you map it out.  First, make a photocopy, then take out a highlighter and trace a path without lifting your pen from the paper. It may mean you have to break it the design up into smaller pieces to do that. Once you have marked off part of the graph as a continuous line, take another color marker and mark every other stitch. That way, when you go to stitch it from the diagram, you will be ready to do the Holbein Stitch on any charted design. Just go one direction following every other stitch, then turn around and come back. 
  • Because it can be stitched to be reversible, this is an excellent choice for decorating afghan cloth.  Most afghan cloth is done in 5 inch even weave squares that would be well suited to Blackwork designs.

On-line Resources:

Blackwork information, inspiration and instruction:

Images of 16th and 17th portraits:

Print Resources:

Blackwork specific:

  • The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework.  
  • Barnett, Lesley.  Blackwork.  Search Press. 48 pages.  ISBN: 0-85532-806-1.
  • Beull, Karen R.  Blackwork.  Threads and Things.  1985. 26 Pages.
  • Driskell, Linda.  Romantic Reversible Blackwork: A Collection of Patterns.  Book 17 Self Published.  1990. 16 Pages.
  • Day, Brenda. Blackwork: A New Approach. Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications.  Paperback.  128 Pages. ISBN: 1861081480
  • Drysdale, Rosemary.  The Art of Blackwork Embroidery.  Scribner & Sons.  Hardbound.  160 pages. ISBN: 0684-14330-9.
  • Fairfield, Helen.  Counted Thread Embroidery.  St. Martin's Press.  Softcover.  143 Pages.  ISBN:  0-312-00965-8.
  • Geddes, Elizabeth & McNeill, Moyra.  Blackwork Embroidery. Dover. Paperback.  115 Pages. ISBN: 048623245X
  • Goldberg, Rhoda Ochser.  The New Dictionary of Counted-Thread Embroidery Stitches.  Three Rivers Press. Paperback.  190 pages.  ISBN: 0-517-8863-4.
  • Gostelow, Mary.  Blackwork.  Dover Publications.  Paperback.  160 Pages.  ISBN: 0486401782
  • Kooler, Donna.  Donna Kooler's Encyclopedia of Needlework.  
  • Pascoe, Margaret.  Blackwork Embroidery: Design and Technique.   Batsford.  Softcover.  144 Pages.  ISBN: 0-7134-5146-7.
  • Robinson, Jack.  Blackwork Embroidery: My Methods and Techniques.  Softcover.
  • Scoular, Marion. Why Call it Blackwork? Self Published. 36 Pages.  Sherwood Studio, (404) 497-0648.
  • Strite-Kurz, Ann.  The Heart of Blackwork.  Self Published.  1992. 202 Pages, plus front matter and index of patterns.  ISBN: 0-9633259-1-4.
  • Wilkins, Lesley. Beginners Guide to Blackwork. Search Press. Paperback. 64 pages. ISBN: 0-85532-937-8.
  • Zimmerman, Jane. Art of English Blackwork.  Jane Zimmerman.  Paperback.  ISBN: 0964621916
  • Embroidery and Cross Stitch.  Express Publications.  Australia.
    • Volume 3, Number 2.  "Threads of the Past: Blackwork" (pp. 20 and "Blackwork Sampler" (pp. 24)
    • Volume 5, Number 1.  "Blackwork Sampler" (pp. 38)
    • Volume 6, Number 8.  "Blackwork Grevilleas" (pp. 48)
    • Volume 6, Number 9. "Cornflower Blackwork" (pp. 10)
    • Volume 7, Number 7.  "Sunflowers" (pp.34)
  • Inspirations. Country Bumpkin Publications.  Australia.
    • Issue 12. Imprints. 
  • McCall's Needlework.  Stitch by Stitch by Mary Polityka Bush. A Blackwork sampler bell pull.
  • Sampler & Antique Quarterly.  Spring 2002.  Volume 26. Scrimshaw Maiden & Sailor Bookmarks and Joane Wallwin Sampler.  

Photos of some Blackwork projects:

These pieces were stitched from commercially available designs by Barb in the UK and are presented here with her explicit written permission.  

scarletwork.jpg (91200 bytes)    bwbridge.jpg (233366 bytes)

 

[1] For more information see Sumptuary Laws in Tudor England: Is Your Garb Legal? .

[2] For more information see Life of Women in Tudor England

[3] For more information see Hans Holbein, The Younger.


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 Rissa Peace ©1999-2013

This site last edited: 01/01/13