Blackwork embroidery

What is Blackwork embroidery

Blackwork, sometimes historically termed Spanish blackwork, is a form of embroidery generally using black thread on white or off-white fabric.
Chessboard.  Image source: Blackwork 


Traditionally, blackwork is stitched in silk thread on linen fabric or cotton fabric. Modern embroiders use also cotton, metallic and colored threads.

The technique and styles:

Historically, blackwork was done on plain weave fabric. Modern stitchers often use even weave fabric, suitable for counted thread work. There are three common styles of blackwork.
  • Linear blackwork: Heavily influenced by the Islamic art the earliest blackwork motifs were geometric in appearance. These counted-thread patterns, in step and box shapes may have been adapted from Egyptian samplers.
  • Later blackwork features large designs of flowers, fruit and other patterns connected by curvilinear stems. These are frequently not counter thread work. The shapes are outlined with double running or Holbein stitch, backstitch and stem stitch. The outlined patterns are filled with geometric counted designs. To give the design shading, depth and interest, they are used threads of varying thickness. For example, for the outlines they might be used 4 strand threads and for the fillings 1 strand threads. Sometimes, the outlined patterns are shaded with random stitches called seed stitches. This style of blackwork imitates etching or woodcuts.
  • The third style of blackwork has its origins in strapwork. Strapwork is a stylised representation in ornament of leather straps, consisting of flattened strips or bands of curling leather, parchment or metal cut into elaborate shapes, with piercings, and often interwoven in a geometric pattern. Repetitive strapwork patterns in stem stitch or chain stitch are ofthe seen in Henry's VIII portraits. 

Hans Holbein, Portrait of Henry VIII, c. 1536. Oil and tempera on oak,Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid. Image source: Hans Holbein. 

The history of blackwork embroidery

It is difficult to trace exactly the origins of blackwork since this type of embroidery it has been in existence in various countries, cultures and periods. Many researchers affirm that the embroidering with dark thread onto a white fabric is probably one of the earliest forms of embroidery.

According to the book "Needlework through history: An encyclopedia" blackwork originated in North Africa and spread to southern Spain with the Moors. It is also acceptable, that blackwork embroidery was popularized in England, during the reign of Hendry VIII (1509-1547) and his wife Catherine of Aragon, and further developed during the reign of Elizabeth I.
blackwork embroidery, history of blackwork embroidery, painring blackwork embroidery
Counted stitch Blackwork, 1530s (left), and free stitch Blackwork, 1590s (right). Image source: Blackwork

Phase I: Introduction of Blackwork embroidery from Spain to England
Several researchers attribute blackwork’s arrival in England to Catherine of Aragon. However this is not true, since Catherine only popularised a type of embroidery that it was already existed in England by the Middle ages. At first it was done for ecclesiastical embroidery and it became more secular by the sixteen century. 

Catherine is credited for both popularising Spanish blackwork and the farthingale, a hooped underskirt. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and it was send to England at the age of 16 to marry Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII. Unfortunately, Arthur died, soon after his marriage and Catherine married the brother of Arthur, Henry VIII. Henry VIII became the king of England and Catherine became the queen.

It is believed that Catherine, when she came to England from Spain, brought with her many clothes decorated with blackwork embroidery. After, she became queen the court probably wanted to imitate her fashion style and blackwork started to become popular. Catherine was also an accomplished embroiderer, and she herself embroidered some of the king Henry’s clothes. Due to her Spanish origins, Catherine was exposed to Moorish culture. Remember that in 711AD Arabs emigrated from North Africa to Spain, bringing with them their preference for geometric, repeating patterns.

During Catherine’s period, blackwork was mostly used to decorate collars, coifs and cuffs. This type of embroidery was ideal for these cloth parts since the embroidered piece was reversible. The designs were mostly scrolling, "arabesque" shapes with an obvious Moorish influence and the final result looked like lace. 

When Henry VIII broked with the Catholic Church and dissolved the monasteries and convents embroidery was more often seen on secular items, like clothing and home furnishung. Gradually the applications of blackwork embroidery extended from garment, to bed covers, linens, curtains, towels, wall hangings etc. . In sixteenth-century England the bedrrom was not the private space it is today. It was part of the living area and on view to visotors. beds and Benches were embellished with blackwork cushions, hangings and coverlets.  

Phase II: Development of blackwork embroidery
At the first period of the introduction of blackwork in England, through blackwork were mostly represented prearranged patterns. It was, Elizabeth I (Henry VIII's duaghter) that brought traditional English design themes to this style, like fruits, delicate flowers and herbs. Lilies, scrolling vines, strawberries, peas, grapes, carnations, pomegranates, acorns, animals, birds and fishes, butterflies, and insects became popular motifs. Designs were often influenced by wrough-iron scrowrwork and especially the new availability of printed material. Motifs were copied directly from engravings and wood-cuts. Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603) was queen regnant of England and Ireland from 1558 until her death. She was also a competent embroiderer.

Apart from the enrichment of the design themes another change took place under the rule of Elizabeth I. Embroiderers started to fill the outlined motifs with repeating geometric patterns. Under Catherine’s influence ordered patterns were only outlined with stem stitch or double running stitch. Under Elizabeht’s influence each motif had an outline embroidered and then the shape was filled with complicated geometric designs. Different fill patterns, created darker and lighter areas. Inevitably, this type of blackwork was not reversible. After all, blackwork was not restricted to cuffs and collars but it could cover a whole tudor garment. This blackwork was οften accented with gold metallic thread and sequins. 
Elizabeth I wearing free-stitched Blackwork sleeves, stomacher, and collar (beneath a sheer linen ruff), c.1590.  Image source: Blackwork
Blackwork fell from favor in the Stuart period as other stitching techniques became popular. However, blackwork it persisted in samplers. Since the early 17th century blackwork has had some revivals, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Traces of blackwork through painting. 

Unfortunately, few examples of blackwork have survived, as the iron oxide used in dyeing the black silk thread had a corrosive effect, rotting the fibres of garments. Fortunately, the royals of the 16th and 17th century were often painted wearing costumes that were heavily embroidered and thus much of the information about blackwork and the types of designs favoured has been gleaned from portraits.
Famous painters that have depicted in much detail blackwork embroidery are Hans Holbein the younger and Nicholas Hilliard. 
Nicholas Hilliard. Elizabeth I, the "Pelican" portrait, c. 1572. Image source: Nicholas Hilliard 

Parameters that influenced the development of blackwork embroidery

  • The availability of silk: In England, under the reign of Elizabeth there was wealth and the silk became available to a wider audience. During the Tudor/Elizabethan periods many people, both men and women wore clothing adorned in blackwork.
  • The Sumptuary statues: Under Henry, colors and cloths were restricted by class and there were laws that prevented ordinary people from wearing luxurious clothing and excessive ornamentation. So, blackwork became a beautiful substitute for lace or simply a less expensive alternative. 
  • The advent of printed patterned books: During Elizabethan period design books and embroidery patterns became more widely available offering embroiderers a wide variety of design ideas.  Flora, fauna and allegorical stories were common elements for black and white plates, which could then be reproduced in black and white embroidery.  The very nature of black on white print made it an easy transition to blackwork embroidery. Inevitably, embroidery has started to imitate the woodcut printings of these books. Speckling for example, was a technique made up of a series of small seed-like running stitches or back-stitches, which would become slightly longer or denser towards the edge of a motif to give a subtle shading effect. The technique was probably imitating the printer’s ink and woodcut illustrations. 
Beliefs and blackwork
In Eastern Europe, blackwork is used in the folk clothing. Painting of gypsy fortune tellers from the sixteenth century include blackwork around the neck and cuffs of their dresses. This may be related to a superstition that embroidered edges on clothing protect the body from evil spirits.


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