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The Roots of Blackwork Embroidery

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The roots of blackwork embroidery
(will the real blackwork please stand up?)
by Christian de Holacombe

Blackwork, as a style of needlework, is notoriously hard to define. It’s worked in black thread — except when it’s red, blue, or lavender. It’s usually in a single color — except when it’s two or three colors at once, or has spangles, or gold thread added. It’s mostly outlines — except when there are fillings. It’s done to counted threads (except when it’s not) and in double running stitch — except when it’s backstitch, or includes cross stitches or plain running stitch. About the only thing that doesn’t seem to change is that historical blackwork is almost always worked in silk thread on white linen.

And yet, most of us know what we mean when we say “blackwork”— although our definitions may be wider, or narrower, or fuzzy around the edges, there is still a “core” of historical examples that most of us can agree on. The earliest of these examples in Western Europe appear in a few paintings by both Hans Holbeins (Elder and Younger), one of the first being the Saint Sebastian altarpiece of 1516. Certainly blackwork was tremendously popular and fashionable in 16th-century England, Italy and Germany, appearing on the collars and cuffs of men’s and women’s shirts, nightshirts and smocks, on partlets worn over a shirt, and on coifs and caps. Much of it was simple outlines worked in a single color (usually black), using the familiar double running stitch in counted-thread patterns as a major component of the embroidery, if not the whole.


After much contemplation, it seems to me that the problem is this: we are trying to define blackwork by describing it, but description doesn’t really work here: there is too much variation. Instead, I think the image we all have in mind when we say “blackwork” is of a particular group of historical examples. And it is the relationship between these examples — the fact that people who worked them had seen others like them and been inspired by them — that really defines this style. These examples have a “genetic” relationship, and I think that is the real basis for our concept of blackwork.

 Of course, without a time machine, our evidence for what is and isn’t really related is never going to be perfect. Sometimes it’s easy — when a piece uses the same threads, the same stitches, and motifs out of the same embroidery books, it clearly shares the “genes” we are talking about. Other times it’s more difficult.

In the 17th century, for instance, the blackwork concept wanders off in some very interesting directions. One branch takes the sort of counted-thread borders that were earlier worked in just one color and works them using several colors in the same border — leaves in green, stems in brown, little strawberry fruits in red. Another branch, which is very popular in modern revivals, outlines areas of the cloth and fills them in with counted double- running stitch patterns. Yet another goes off into flowering vines and scrolls worked in surface stitches that are not counted, and eventually includes realistic- looking birds and animals shaded from light to dark with little black speckle stitches, so they look like an engraving on paper.

I tend to think of these as the “suburbs” of blackwork, where the one-color techniques using double-running stitch are the “central city.” Your definition of blackwork may include some, all, or none of these “suburbs.” (In this article, I’m talking mainly about the central “core.”)

Origins and history

More to the point for our purposes, what about the origins of blackwork? And how did it become so popular in the 1500s? Here is where a time machine would really be useful.

A reference often cited as representing “blackwork” is Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale” (1400), which describes a woman this way: “Whit was hir smok, and broyden al bifoore, And eek bihynde, on hir coler aboute, Of col-blak silk, withinne and eek withoute…” a passage that has attracted much commentary. This is an isolated reference, and it’s at least 100 years before any evidence of European blackwork we can recognize. The fact that this passage refers to a white smock may be misleading, because it suggests a connection with the 16th-century blackwork embroidery on smocks, nightshirts and shirts. But as Robin Netherton has pointed out in a 2008 conference presentation, the “coler” referred to cannot be part of the smock, since 14th-century women’s smocks did not have collars. It was likely a separate garment. Further, the word “broyden” may have actually meant “braided” or “bordered” and not “embroided.” And thus the only thing we know is that the decoration on the “coler” was black.

Clearly blackwork in the 1500s did not spring out of nowhere. But there is another and far better candidate for the origins of European blackwork: the embroideries done entirely in double-running stitch that we find in the Islamic countries south of the Mediterranean in the 14th and 15th centuries (like the one on this cover). How these came to be popular in Western Europe is still not entirely clear. A good possibility is that the connection is through Islamic Spain, where the last of the Moors were not driven out until 1492, and where many of the artistic motifs brought by Islam remained popular even after that date. One often-mentioned theory is that blackwork was brought to England and made popular by Catherine of Aragon, who married Henry VIII of England in 1509. The absence of any real evidence of blackwork in Western Europe before this date also suggests foreign origin.

Stitches and styles

Taking double-running stitch as the core of our definition, there are several recognizable “styles” of blackwork in the Islamic pieces that survive. One of the first to make its way to Europe is the “stair step” style, where all the stitches are either horizontal or vertical, and where diagonal lines are formed in a series of “steps.” This is the style of border the Darmstadt Madonna altarpiece, which Aelia Apollonia in this issue has used as her inspiration for blackwork bands.

Another style is shown on our cover , where the design in the blue borders is formed from lines of little hollow squares. The Germans refer to this particular type of blackwork as “Kastenstich” (literally “box stitch”). You can also see this in the strips of pattern on the Mamluk kerchief on our Projects page.

Early European blackwork has a number of examples of the “stair-step” style, such as those printed in Nicolas Bassée’s New Modelbuch of 1568. Interestingly, it’s quite noticeable (and understandable!) that the Islamic patterns contain relatively few crosses, which proliferate rapidly in the European examples. Later European work developed using more diagonal stitches, a trend already visible in Bassée. Islamic needleworkers tended to stick to strictly abstract and geometric patterns, due to the tendency of Islamic art to avoid representing real objects. But since European workers did not have this restriction, blackwork patterns depicting the flowers, leaves, and vines common in other European art rapidly became popular.

Blackwork myths

The Victorians, the Arts and Crafts movement and the 1970s craft revival all adopted blackwork as a favorite style for needlework, and true to their nature, each added their own ideas about how blackwork should, or could, be worked. People who have learned blackwork from modern embroidery societies or books are sometimes surprised to discover that some of these “rules” are not obeyed by 16th century and earlier blackwork.

One such “rule” is the idea that the back of the embroidery should be as neat as the front. This seems in particular to be a Victorian obsession. Professional embroiderers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were often aiming for speed and had deadlines to meet — and perhaps, didn’t feel it so important to put extra work into something that would never be seen. So there are quite a few examples of historical embroidery that have knots, thread skips, or even loops of thread on the back.

Allied to this, another shock to some modern embroiderers is that not all blackwork is, or can be, reversible or exactly the same on both sides. Embroiderers today have great fun puzzling out how to work things to be exactly reversible, and of course historical examples do exist — there’s one on the Project Page of this issue. But not all historical patternscanbe worked reversibly. For any pattern that has motifs that are not attached to the rest of the pattern, the only way you can work it to be reversible is to cut your thread and start it again every time you start one of those motifs. That’s rather a lot of work. And flipping over historical examples of blackwork reveals that even patterns thatcouldbe worked reversibly sometimes were not. There are even sections worked in backstitch rather than running stitch — definitely not reversible!

This next note may seem a bit obvious — especially if you have seen the front cover of this issue — but blackwork is not always black! There are plenty of historical examples that are red or blue, and at least one 16th-century shirt very nicely embroidered in lavender. As you can see in Marianne Ellis’s book, quite a bit of Islamic blackwork is actually worked in blue. And as we’ve mentioned, the 17th-century developments of European blackwork include many borders worked in two, three or more colors.

Something that takes awhile to dawn on many people is that there are quite a few examples of “counted-thread” double- running stitch — which is the way we tend to assume the stitch was worked — that are not, in fact, actually counted. Especially in some of the later embroideries that use double-running stitch fillings inside an outline, it’s clear that there are examples where not every stitch spans exactly the same number of threads — the pattern was just “eyeballed” to look approximately right. If you have a trained eye, of course, this is a faster way to work it, and especially if the person you are doing the embroidery for does not have that trained eye, the result looks perfectly fine.

Materials and methods

As with counted-thread cross stitch, not all historical blackwork was worked on fabric with exactly the same number of threads to the inch in both directions. The sampler analyzed in Kathleen Epstein’s book (see Resources), for instance, is worked on linen that is 17 threads in one direction and 22 in the other. Of course, this is a sampler, where perhaps it doesn’t matter so much, and some of the motifs in the sampler do look distorted. But working on linen that is just slightly “uneven” often produces work that looks quite all right, as long as you aren’t working a motif that contains large squares or a border that turns corners.

This is an advantage for the modern embroiderer, because the difference in price between ordinary linen and specially woven “even weave” linen can be quite startling. It’s worthwhile sometimes to buy a small “linen counter” magnifying glass and take it to the fabric store to check the linen in ordinary bolts on the shelf. My magnifier sits on a little folding stand that has a hole exactly 1 inch square in the base, making counting easy. My experience is that anything less than about 10% difference in thread count (2 threads out of 22, for instance) is next to unnoticeable unless something about the motifs makes it particularly obvious.

Virtually all of the period blackwork I can think of was worked on linen with silk thread. Most of it seems — when we know the context — to be on “body linens,” such as shirts, smocks, nightshirts, handkerchiefs and perhaps the ends of towels. In the Middle East, blackwork appears on under-tunics and children’s tunics. These are things that come into close contact with bare skin and sweat, and so they are made to be washed. Silk thread is generally hand washable, so such garments were freely washed in the days before synthetic detergents and washing machines. Modern embroiderers sometimes choose to embroider in cotton thread so their work can be machine-washed.

Black silk in historical work is unfortunately prone to fading, breakage or both. When dyed with an iron mordant, the silk may disintegrate with age, leaving only stitch holes to mark the fact that the fabric was embroidered. Black dyed with natural dyes and not mordanted with iron tends to fade when exposed to light and washing. With modern black silk, the main problem is that the dye tends to rub off, or run, onto white fabric outside the stitching. Washing the thread before using, especially with a dye-fixing detergent such as “Retayne,” helps prevent this.

Patterns for blackwork are widely available, but it’s not always clear whether they are taken from historical pieces or whether they are modern patterns made to look more or less historical. Some modern patterns, especially those used by modern embroiderers, have differences in style from the historical patterns, so checking sources is important. Some pattern sources are listed below.


André, Paul, Tissus d’Égypte: Témoins du monde arabe, VIIIe-XVe siècles. Éditions de l’Albaron, Société Présence du Livre, 1993, ISBN 2-908-528-525.
This book (in French) presents the Bouvier Collection of Arabic textiles, including a few pieces of blackwork.

Bassée, Nicolas; German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery, a facsimile copy of his New Modelbuch of 1568;Curious Works Press, 1994, ISBN 0-9633331-4-3
Here’s what period pattern books looked like. A fascinating collection of patterns for all sorts of embroidery, mostly counted- thread (canvas or cross stitch). There are seven pages that are clearly blackwork designs.

Ellis, Marianne: Embroideries and samplers from Islamic Egypt.Ashmolean Museum Oxford, published in association with Curious Works Press, 2001, ISBN #1-85444-135-3

Epstein, Kathleen; A New Modelbook for Spanish Stitch;Curious Works Press, 1993, ISBN 0-9633331-2-7 and Epstein, Kathleen;An Anonymous Woman, Her Work Wrought in the 17th Century; Curious Works Press, 1992, ISBN 0-9633331-1-9
These two books are the best I’ve seen for documented blackwork patterns and a lucid discussion of their history. The first is hard to find; the second also contains a number of cross-stitch borders, some of them double-sided.

On the Web:

Medieval Egyptian “Blackwork” Embroidery
Baroness Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn has a good discussion of these pieces and an excellent series of diagrams showing how to “decode” a pattern and figure out how to stitch it. Several pattern charts are included.

A few sites with charts:

2/1/10 web links updated

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