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Blackwork

Also known as Spanish blackwork

Blackwork is a form of monochrome embroidery generally using black thread, although other colours are also used on occasion. It can be worked as a counted thread technique which creates patterns on evenweave fabric or as freeform embroidery.

Traditionally, blackwork is stitched in silk thread on white or off-white linen or cotton fabric; sometimes metallic or coloured threads are used for accents.  Some pieces are worked in another single colour, most commonly red but also blue or green; very occasionally multiple colours are used in a single piece, although individual motifs tend to be monochrome.

Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, references a blackwork collar embroidered on both sides, but it is impossible to know if this embroidery was the same as that worked in the 16th century when it was used to embellish linen collars and cuffs as seen in many Tudor portraits.  Some authors credit Catherine of Aragon for introducing blackwork into England and it was certainly referred to as ‘Spanish work’ but there is no conclusive evidence that she was responsible for its introduction.

By the end of the 16th century, blackwork was being used to decorate linen coifs (a close-fitting head covering) and other garments, some of which feature gold and silver thread and spangles, as well as black thread.  Extant garments, particularly those which feature the flora and fauna and curving stems (known as rinceaux) which epitomise Elizabethan embroidery are often freeform embroidery, rather than counted thread.  Motifs are normally outlined in black and either filled with blackwork patterns, or embellished with stitches, especially seeding to give a more naturalistic effect.  This style continued largely unchanged into the Jacobean era (although contemporary references still refer to it as Elizabethan).  In the second half of the 17th century counted thread blackwork was being worked on samplers, but by the 18th century its popularity had waned.

The counted thread version of the technique was revived in the 20th century when blackwork patterns started to be documented.

The stitches listed below include those used in Elizabethan ‘freeform’ blackwork as well as those appropriate for the counted thread version.

Blackwork Stitches