What is Blackwork?


It is built up from the simplest of stitches- a short straight stitch over two or more threads on an evenweave fabric. The stitch can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal.


the stitches are small and straight and the fabric must be evenweave (ie the warp and weft threads should measure the same in each direction, a bit like graph paper).

Catherine of Aragon, the most senior wife of Henry V111, has always been reputed to be the person who introduced the technique to England, when she came to England to marry Henry in 1501. That is why it was usually called Spanish Blackwork.

It is likely that it was popular in England before that time however.

Evidence of the early use of Blackwork can be found in the portraits painted by Hans Holbein, who  lived from 1465 - 1524.

Margaret Pascoe shows in her book (page 9) a painting dated 1516 in which the pattern shown is so clear that it is easily reproducible (if that is a word!)

Other 16th century portraits are in  Moyra Mc Neill's book..

In the Tudor period, clothing and furnishings were the only real way of showing conspicuous wealth- no posh cars, 4 wheel drives or foreign holidays.  Embroidered and costly clothes were the perogative of the wealthy upper classes.  The portraits show that ruffs, shirt sleeve edges and so on were worked in black on white linen, in a double running stitch which was reversible. It was shown so often on portraits by Holbein that it is now known as Holbein Stitch.

In the days of the first Elizabeth, times were a bit more peaceable and prosperous: wealth became more widespread.  There was a rise in the general standard of living.  At the same time, printing advances made books more available and books of patterns emerged. Blackwork spread to bed furnishings, coverlets, cushions and curtains.  These are mentioned in the inventory of the indomitable Bess of Hardwick.

In Elizabeth's time, the style of Blackwork changed somewhat. Patterns were no longer linear or self sufficient. Rather the patterns were used to fill areas in scrolling and floral designs.  These fillings produces a  fabric which looked like lace- labour was cheap and there was a lace tax!  Often the motifs or patterns were outlined with a gold thread in a raised stitch.

Generally speaking, there are few actual pieces of old blackwork surviving today, because the dye used to dye the thread black contained iron, which rotted the fabric. Despite the reputation of our forefathers as being  founding members of the great unwashed, some of the early blackwork was actually washed and the strong alkaline soap used also helped to rot the fabric, so often all that remains is a pattern of holes where the needle actually pierced the fabric

Colour was primarily black on white, but there are examples of blue, green and red embellished with gold

From 1700 - 1900 Blackwork virtually disappeared

Twentieth Centuary

When it re-appeared in the 20th Century, it was restricted to household items like cushion covers, tablecloths, traycloths etc.  The stitch patterns were the same as those of the 16th century,  and care was taken to make them as near reversible as  possible, with no knots or loose ends visible.

It was thought essential for all patterns to be surrounded by a strong outline.

The traditional rules about what one could, or could not, do dominated until about 1960.  After that time, embroidery became more innovative and the restrictions thought to be imposed by tradition  gradually lost their influence. This freedom meant that Blackwork was used more freely and that the individual patterns became freer- no outside defining lines etc

The small stitch patterns used from Tudor times are used to create TONAL areas, outlining is used only where it is needed for emphasis and many thicknesses of thread are used in one piece of work.

Within each tonal area the pattern used is not necessarily uniformly stitched- i.e. a pattern need not be wholly repeated if the desired shape can be better achieved by so doing.  As a result, an effect is produced which can be more like an etching  than a uniform overall pattern.  Now modern black work is more dramatic and dynamic and can express many moods and emotions, and I admire its use on waste canvas to impose pattern on a non even weave background.

That is a potted history of blackwork.

  • EVEN WEAVE FABRIC- whose weave is clearly visible, again the density of the fabric is the same either vertically or horizontally.
  • TAPESTRY NEEDLES- to prevent the piercing of the warp and weft and the working thread.
  • THREAD- about the same thickness as the constituent threads of the fabric

Books consulted

Margaret Pascoe 
Batsford 1986

Blackwork Embroidery
Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeill
Dover 1965

Blackwork Embroidery  
Lesley Barnett
Search Press  1996

Jack Robinson

Blackwork Embroidery- my methods & techniques


To start blackwork you will need:

evenweave fabric of a weave that is easily visible - 25 threads to the inch is fine but many prefer even less threads to the inch to start with

tapestry needle (of a size that will go easily through the fabric without distorting the weave)- size 22 or 24 is suggested thread

thread should be about the same thickness as the threads in the warp and weft of the fabric
Flower thread, perle no 8 and 12 and 1 strand of Madeira 4 strand pure silk are my preference. Collect together bits of each type of thread from your stash and try a few straight or cross stitches in each thread on a scrap of material and see which you prefer.

All these items are available from Silken Strands see: ordering details

Nowadays a variety of threads of varying thickness can be used but for me the essence of blackwork is best expressed when one single thread is used throughout and tones are changed by the use of more or less stitches in a particular area

To see what I mean, and the only way to learn is to do it! here is an exercise in varying the density of a pattern

Choose a single thread of your choice and a piece of evenweave fabric at least 6 by 9 inches (15 x23cms)

Start 1.5 inches (3.5 cms) down from the top left hand corner on the long side and 1 inch (2.5cms) from the left hand on the short side. There are pictures below to help, but it is a good lesson to try and follow the words!

  1. stitch a square going over two threads of the fabric in each direction- there is no right or wrong way to do this, go round in a logical fashion, trying not to cross your threads behind the unstitched square, so they don't show through to the front as a shadow. It sounds horrifically complicated:it's not, have a go!

  2. leave a space of 2 threads and repeat (1) above

  3. Repeat (2) above

  4. Leave 2 threads below the line of 3 squares above and repeat from (1) to (3)

  5. Repeat (4) again.

    This is your first block

  6. Now increase the density of the pattern by repeating the motif at (1) to (5) above but this time do a straight stitch in the centre of the 2 thread space left between the squares.

  7. Do this again, this time adding a cross between the lines of squares.

  8. Now repeat the exercise of the basic 9 squares, but this time add a straight stitch between the squares and put a cross in the squares themselves.

As you can see you can continue adding or taking away and making different patterns of varying density.

To vary even more, you can try doing the same thing but when adding stitches other than the basic 9 square use some metallic gold or silver, ( Madeira No 4, 20 or 25 or a variegated metallic like Madeira No 20 Astra (all available from Silken Strands )

This is merely a taster. If you would be interested in further information, please get in touch with me and I will let you have details of books available and of other sources of information

For some uses of Blackwork, please have a look at the Gallery