Blackwork embroidery is a very old form of counted-thread embroidery. Because many of the designs are geometric it is most often stitched on an even-weave fabric. Despite the name "Blackwork" it was also done in blue, green, gold or silver. Linen or cotton was the primary fabrics since the original purpose of Blackwork was for costume adornment such as the shirt cuff pictured above.
Is it Moroccan, Spanish, or English?
Centuries before it became known as Spanishwork, the Moors in North Africa were decorating their garments with motifs and borders. The Moors moved into southern Spain in the 8th century influencing the needlework of Toledo, Almeria, and Andalusia. In the Andalusia region, the designs were very geometric using one color, but not necessarily black. A tan or blue embroidery on a natural linen was common in the Toledo region.
Most sources credit Katharine of Aragon for introducing Blackwork to England when she came to marry King Henry VIII. It was traditionally embroidery in black silk on white linen for clothing. Because Katharine was from Spain, it was known as "Spanish work" for about fifty years. During this period, only the elite wore such attire. While the garments were simple in shape, they were embroidered with gold and silk. Blackwork was not only decorative, but served a purpose to reinforce cuffs and hems. The embroidery thread was often a dark color to help disguise dirt. Blackwork was a wonderful way to decorate cuffs and collars as the design can be worked so that it is the same on the top and on the bottom of fabric.
The male dress was unique as it was designed to create bulk and thereby a sense of masculinity through the use of many layers. The men’s’ shirts were very expensive and often worn open. Even if you were of the means to afford to embroider your own clothing, an Act of Parliament in 1553 forbid anyone below the level of knight to wear pleated shirts or plain shirts garnished with silk gold, or silver. The gold embroidery thread was called silver-gilt. It was made by coating a silver wire with a thin sheet of gold. The wire was hammered into strips which were then wrapped around silk thread.
After Katharine’s divorce from King Henry in 1533, the term "Spanish work" was replaced with "Blackwork".
A very important event for needle workers occurred in the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth encouraged the improvement of book production. Many books were printed using wood cut illustrations of plants and animals. In 1548 one of the first embroidery pattern books was printed in England. Thomas Geminus engraved the plates on copper and the book was entitled Moryssche & Damaschin renewed and increased very profitable for Goldsmiths and Embroiderers. It featured arabesque designs and was quickly popular among Blackwork embroiderers. Other books began to be published illustrating the strange flora and animals English traders and explorers were discovering in the new world. By the 18th century Blackwork started to fall out of use and never really got established in America.
Fabric – Because the patterns are often geometric patterns, the fabric must have a precise even weave. Blackwork can be worked on any even weave fabric from a 14-count Aida to a 36-count Edinburgh. It is up to you! Hardanger fabric is an excellent choice as it is firm and easy to count. Here are several category links to some excellent fabrics:
Threads – Blackwork is a traditionally done in a monochromic theme so the thread and fabric need to contrast. Several sources suggest using one strand of thread so it will lay flat. If a thicker line is desired, change to a thicker thread or double your threads (working with more than two threads together is not recommended as flatness and smoothness of threads is much more difficult to control). When referencing several designers and what they suggest, it appears you are only limited by your imagination. Some of their recommendations are (click on the links to view our categories):
- Au ver a Soie d’Alger silk
- Silk Mori
- Floss (DMC, Anchor)
- Perle (pearl) cotton in any size (even found one pattern that uses size 3)
Click here to see all of our equivalent pearl cotton in black
Various types of metal threads can be combined with Blackwork. The patterns I reviewed used Kreinik Blending Filament, #4, and #8.
Needles must slide cleanly between the threads of the fabric, so a tapestry needle is recommended. Depending on the size of your thread you may need Tapestry needles in sizes #24, 26, and 28.
Patterns can be purchased from a designer. You can also do like the folks in the 15th and 16th century, look at books with illustrations, especially those done in wood cuts. You can also design your own patterns using graph paper.
Equipment – You want to keep your stitches and tension even, so a hoop or frame would be a good investment. If you are working with a stiffer linen fabric, you’ll want to make sure that when you’re done stitching to remove the hoop as your fabric will crease significantly if left in a hoop too long. Here are some hoops we recommend:
- Spring Tension Hoop – 5″ (plastic)
- Embroidery Hoop – Plastic 4.5″ x 9″ Oval
- 10″ Embroidery Lap Frame
- The Lap-Stitch Mini-Mini Frame
An excellent tool for Blackwork, especially when worked in the traditional Holbein (or double running) stitch, is a laying tool. If you are working with silk or other natural fibers it is a must-have item to retain consistency and to achieve the most even stitches with limited “shadowing” when laying your threads.
- Best Laying Tool (BLT) – Shay Pendray
- Wooden Laying Tool & Case – Cocobolo Rosewood
- Celtic Laying Tool
Tips & Tricks
You should start in the center of the chart. This will help ensure symmetry and help discover any mistakes early. One really nice thing about Blackwork patterns is there is no right or wrong way to work them. You can work left to right, right to left, top to bottom or bottom to top, whatever works for you.
You want to work your piece using the Stab and Stitch. This is where the needle comes straight up from under the fabric then it is inserted straight down. This makes your stitches much more consistent. (This differs from the sewing method where you bring your needle up and across and back down into the fabric in a rocking motion.) When working the Holbein stitch there are a few different methods you can use depending on what type of look you prefer – you can pierce your original threads evenly through the middle, or come up above, or below, the original stitch. Each method has its own look, so make sure that if you start working your piece in one method, to finish it in that method!
Blackwork is done in a series of short stitches. Your finished piece will lay nicer if you use short stitches rather than be tempted to make long stitches instead. Whenever you see lines cross on a pattern you need to make them short stitches that end at the crossed point. Do not use long stitches that cross over the top of each other.
Marion Scoular gives some great tips in her book Why Call it Blackwork?. She talks about Blackwork pattern types as being Diaper, Repeat, or Linear patterns.
- Diaper patterns when turned 90 or 45 degrees does not change the original pattern.
- Repeat patterns have motifs that are separated but repeated.
- Linear patterns are those where you see horizontal, vertical, diagonal or oblique stripes.
There are several ways to create texture, depth, or shading in Blackwork:
- Add stitches where you want more shading
- Use two shades of a color within a pattern, light colored stitching in front and dark colored stitching in back will help create depth
- Use two different thickness of thread
- Substitute metallic thread for part of the pattern
- Add beads or sequins for special effect
Techniques to Try
Double Running Stitch or Holbein Stitch is the traditional stitch which allows you to make perfectly reversible pieces that you cannot achieve using back stitch. Here is a free pattern with great instructions.
Back Stitch can be used for the outline.
To honor this great needlework technique, we’ve created a free Blackwork ornament pattern. This ornament was worked with two different threads in the traditional Holbein stitch and was made into a reversible ornament. We thought it would be great to hang on our tree so we have it shown in a clear glass ornament, showcasing the reversibility!
Q. I hear people talk about mapping your journey. What is a journey?
A. The journey is the route you take while you are stitching to ensure full reversibility while using the Holbein stitch. This journey differs for every pattern (and every stitcher!) and can be quite mind-boggling for the beginner, or advanced, depending on the complexity of the pattern (Celtic knots in double-running stitches does not a happy Ryan make!). When you’re working your double-running stitch, you will only see half of your stitches from the front of your fabric, so you not only have to decide which directions you are taking going forward, but you also must consider your return route back to “fill in” the missing stitches. Usually you work your way down the straight lines of your pattern, only deviating from the straight path to stitch the branches of the pattern. Here are some excellent diagrams of basic journeys that have been mapped out from start to finish:
Q. Do I do the outline first or the filler stitches?
A. The order you decide to do your stitching is really up to you. Some designers say to do the outline first, while others tell you to do the filler stitches first. I would recommend doing the stitching in the order the designer recommends until you have a little experience, then do what works best for you.
Q. Do I have to have an outline?
A. No, you can do a pattern without an outline. Depending on the subject, it might be better not to have an outline. Check out this link to see trees worked without borders. This article also has a wonderful example of using different weighs of thread.
Q. I’m confused! What is the difference between Blackwork and Assisi embroidery?
A. Assisi embroidery is counted-thread embroidery, also known as “voided technique”, that uses filler stitches (usually cross-stitch) to fill in the background of a pattern, leaving the main design unstitched. This technique creates striking contrasting images and designs. Sometimes Assisi is combined with Blackwork to create central designs in Assisi with elegant and decorative scrollwork and motifs in Blackwork framing the main element. Assisi is a needle art form originating in Italy. Assisi is the Italian town associated with the revival of the form. You can find more information about Assisi embroidery at this link: Embroidery and embroiderer, Assisi embroidery: about the style
Q. What about Redwork? Is that just Blackwork using red threads?
A. Redwork is an embroidery technique that uses cotton threads. The original dyeing process that made the usually non-colorfast red threads to become colorfast was originally made in Turkey, allowing the red threads to be used for more practical and every-day items without the problem of bleeding. Because of this sometimes Redwork is referred to as Turkey Redwork (not to be confused with Turkeywork however). There are many different facets of Redwork which differentiates it from Blackwork – the predominant use of cotton (not silk) fibers, used more on quilting and linens rather than clothing, uses a muslin (non-counted) fabric, and the stitches consist of stem, outline, and the Kensington split stitch. Funny enough though, there was a subcategory of “red” Blackwork that still adhered to the original techniques and used silk fibers, but this embroidery was referred to as “Scarletwork”.
Meet some Designers
Blackwork Journey – Elizabeth Almond
Elizabeth Almond sometimes combines several techniques in her designs for stunning outcomes. Her Blackwork patterns often have striking color and patterning additions as well. Here are some of her beautiful Blackwork designs:
The designer, Banu Demirel, lives in Turkey. She is married and has a 4 year old son. Here is Banu’s story. "I have always enjoyed needlework; most probably this is my dear mother’s influence, whom I never was her just sitting without doing needlework. I was into cross stitching a lot. When we moved to a new city, I was hopelessly unhappy and alone, so I just started to surf the set till I found something called "Blackwork"…I was almost mesmerized, the harmony of the stitches and the detail which cannot be given by cross stitches…I tried my hand on some freebies and Sally Rudkin’s designs, she was incredible inspiration for me. Then I started to try designing. In fact, Blackwork is geometrical, not many round shape, but I think growing in Turkey, the round shapes and the oriental touch has made its way through me. I think every needlework lover should try Blackwork one day. It is very open to experimenting, both with color and the number of strands to be used. It builds up much more quicker than cross stitch, very easy to do and very much fun…"
Visit Banu’s site for some free patterns: http://www.sebadesigns.com/
I love the heading of Sally’s web page: "A Hobby gone wild, or a Dream come true". Sally Rudkin describes herself as "Daughter, Wife, Sister, Christian, Southerner (despite my Yankee roots), American, Designer, Human, Food provider & ball thrower (to Jack, our Lab), Geek." She has a fabulous website where you can scroll through her blog and find out the inspirations behind some of her designs. Sally is not afraid to use color in her patterns.
Linda and her husband Jim are the principals of Calico Crossroads. Linda does the designing, digitizing, charting, stitching, finishing and framing. Jim does the photography and some digital imaging and accounting. They are celebrating their 15th year in business. Linda says "There are two aspects of designing that I find the most rewarding and fun. One is the unfettered freedom of expression. The other is hearing from stitchers how much they enjoy my designs. It makes me very happy to know that I’ve brought a little joy and beauty to someone’s life." You probably think about "Kats by Kelly" when you hear the name "Calico Crossroads." Check out their website to meet the cats and designer.
Berlin Embroidery Designs
Tanja Berlin has been a professional embroidery teacher and designer for over 10 years. She has a very impressive background which you can read about at her website.
Laura J. Perin Designs
Laura has a couple of Blackwork designs you might be interested in:
- Blackwork Embroidery – Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeil.
- Beginner’s Guide to Blackwork by Lesley Wilkins
- The New Anchor Book of Blackwork Embroidery stitches
- Why call it Blackwork? By Marion Scoular
- Blackwork & Holbein Embroidery – Ilse Altherr
- The Complete International Book of Embroidery – Mary Gostelow, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1977
- Blackwork, Marion Scoular, Leisure Arts leaflet 82, 1976
- For those really technical folks out there, here is a paper written by Joshua Holden on The Graph Theory of Blackwork Embroidery:
Free charts and additional information links:
- This site has some historical pictures and a nice bookmark with well illustrated instructions on how to map the journey. http://www.geocities.com/monstonitrus/a_and_s/blackwork/blackwork.html
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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