What Is Blackwork Embroidery?
Blackwork is a type of counted thread embroidery where repetitive geometric patterns are used to fill in design areas. Usually associated with Tudor England, it was called blackwork because, as the name implies, black silk thread was worked on white or off white linen or cotton fabric. The stitches varied somewhat although small, straight stitches tended to dominate. Threads of varying thicknesses were used to give the design depth and shading.
Development of Blackwork Embroidery
There has been much debate as to when blackwork embroidery came to be. Working with contrasting thread and fabric is probably one of the earliest forms of embroidery known and has been in existence in various countries for many centuries.
In 711 AD, Arabs emigrating from North Africa and settling in Spain, brought with them Islamic art. Geometric in pattern, this art form greatly influenced Spanish needlework.
Archaeological evidence from Egyptian excavations, dates blackwork embroidery back to at least the 13-15th centuries. ‘The earliest known examples of double running stitch embroideries are found on linen fragments and partial garments from archaeological excavations in Egypt. [T]hey are believed to have been produced between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries…’1
In ‘The Millers’ Tale’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, written in the late 1300s, there is a passage describing the clothing of the miller’s wife, Alison: ‘Of white, too, was the dainty smock she wore, embroidered at the collar all about with coal-black silk, alike within and out.” It would seem as if a running stitch may have been used to make the design on the collar reversible.
As with most embroidery, pinpointing precisely when a technique was developed is often impossible.
Blackwork Embroidery in Tudor Times
As already mentioned, blackwork embroidery gained notoriety during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547).
Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, came to England at the age of 16 as the intended bride of Arthur, Prince of Wales; Henry’s older brother. Upon Arthur’s death, five months into their marriage, it was decided that Catherine would marry Henry when he came of age.
Catherine was an accomplished needle worker. She learned needlepoint, lacemaking and embroidery while growing up in Spain. When Catherine left for England, she brought with her many garments embellished with blackwork embroidery. The stitching on the collars and cuffs were mainly a form of reinforcement and, because both sides would be on display, they were worked with a reversible stitch.
So intricate and finely stitched were these designs, they resembled lace. Lace was a heavily taxed commodity at this time and was available only to the wealthy nobility. Blackwork embroidery with its linear pattern was considered an acceptable substitute for lace for those less well-off.
The scrolling designs on the reversible collars and cuffs gave the embroidery a decidedly Spanish feel. Because of this, blackwork embroidery was often referred to as ‘Spanish work’.
Catherine was most instrumental in making blackwork embroidery immensely popular. When she became Queen the royal court, wishing to emulate her, began wearing shirts, chemises or smocks adorned with blackwork embroidery. This trend helped forge blackwork embroidery’s association with England.
This association was further reinforced by the artwork of its famous court painter. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) did oil paintings and portraits which illustrated the fashions of the day.
The detailing in Holbein’s paintings is of such a high degree that the stitching on the sleeves and collars of his subjects’ clothing (as pictured above) can clearly be identified as blackwork embroidery. These linear patterns were so often painted by Holbein that the double running stitch, which was and still is often used today, became known as the Holbein stitch.
Holbein’s paintings provide us with a choice view of the embroidery of that time. Due to the type of fabrics available at the time, the harsh alkaline soaps used to launder garments and the black dye used on the threads very few actual samples of blackwork exist today.
With the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), came blackwork designs that were less ordered, more free form. An accomplished embroiderer herself, Elizabeth I helped create a blackwork embroidery with a distinctly English tone.
These new patterns reflected the English penchant for flora and fauna. They comprised of winding patterns and floral designs. Each motif of nature would be outlined, with a stem or running stitch perhaps, and then filled with geometric patterns.
As the age of the printing presses dawned, embroidery patterns and design books became more widely available. The woodcut illustrations in these publications echoed the monochrome patterns of blackwork embroidery and helped fan its popularity. By now, blackwork had progressed from the collars and cuffs and was no longer reversible. Blackwork now covered Tudor dress for both men and women with Queen Elizabeth at the forefront of this form of embellishment.
Through the Tudor years, it became the fashion to entertain guests in the bedroom. It therefore became necessary to decorate bedroom items such as bed covers, curtains and bed linen with embroidery. Specially designed bedclothes were also in demand in order to receive company in a fashionable manner. This presented embroiderers with yet another opportunity to display their blackwork abilities.
It was also during Tudor times that blackwork moved from decorating clothing and accessories to adorning household articles such as towels and wall hangings. Linen was the fabric of choice for those who could afford it while black was the preferred colour of thread. Of course, this was not a hard and fast rule. On occasion, red thread was also used. This was referred to as ‘scarlet work’. Embroiderers also utilized gold threads and beads as accents; much like the charms and metallic threads popular in today’s embroidery.
Blackwork embroidery’s popularity started to decline during the 17th century as other stitching techniques such as bead embroidery caught the attention of embroiderers. But blackwork did not die out completely.
Blackwork Embroidery’s Rebirth
In the late 1800s, blackwork began a slow but steady revival. People were becoming interested in history and Victorian embroiderers were supportive of exhibitions of historical embroidery.
The Needlework Development Scheme of Great Britain helped raise awareness of blackwork and other types of embroidery during the 20th century. Historical re-enactment societies and interior decorators have also done their bit in restoring blackwork’s notoriety. Not only has traditional blackwork been revived, but new elements have been added.
As we already know, traditional blackwork was stitched using black silk thread on fine white linen. Today modern embroiderers can choose from a selection of evenweaves ranging from a large 8ct binca to a petite 32ct or higher linen. Cotton, polyester and other fabric blends can also be utilized. Silk thread is still a favourite among traditionalists and modernistas alike, but who says you can’t experiment with cotton, rayon and linen?
Modern-day needleworkers have a huge range of patterns to choose from as well. Favourite subjects include chessboards, maps and, of course, flowers and nature. There are also patterns available inspired by paintings or objet d’art.
Contemporary designs can be stitched in the traditional black and white. But with the array of colours now available for thread and fabrics, why not let your hair down a bit and do a bit of trial-and-error? Perhaps a dark colour other than black on a complementary, light-coloured fabric other than white. Or what about reversing it? A light thread on a dark background.
Blackwork embroidery, like cross stitch, can be combined with other types of needlework to create something really special. Assisi is a good one to play around with as it makes use of the Holbein stitch.
If you really want to do something you can truly call your own, have a go at designing your own patterns. You can draw inspiration from your surroundings (gardens are always a good place to start) or from the people in your life. Maybe a family member has an interesting hobby you could base a design on. (Note: The finished project would make an ideal gift.)
In this article, we have gone over what blackwork embroidery is, its progression over the centuries and how it continues to evolve in modern times. If you would like to read more about this embroidery’s fascinating, below is some suggested reading material.
1 Kathleen Epstein, Concernynge the Excellency of the Nedle Worcke Spanisshe Stitche, Piecework Magazine, January 1995.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Blackwork by Mary Gostelow
Blackwork by Lesley Barnett
Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’D by Janet Arnold
Elizabethan Embroidery by George Frederick Wingfield Digby
Readers Digest Complete Guide to Needlework by Readers Digest
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