Blackwork -- An Introduction
by Carol Algie Higginbotham

Originally published in Needle Pointers, Volume XI, Number 5, Winter 1983

Editor's Note: Carol Algie is an EGA certified teacher of Blackwork. A past president of the Southern California Chapter EGA, she serves on the Counted Thread Master Craftsman committee for EGA and has taught locally and at regional and national Seminars for EGA & NSC, and for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Her other stitching interests include Crewel, Whitework (especially Dresden and Ayrshire) and metal thread. Carol is a second generation Californian who works as a Library Assistant for a Southern California public library.

Working in a contrasting thread to the ground fabric was probably one of the earliest forms of embroidery done. There are records of black and white embroidery for many centuries and in various countries. In 711 AD, the Arabs of North Africa settled in Spain and brought Islamic art with them. This art form was geometric in pattern and influenced Spanish needlework. Early European needlework was done primarily for the church but by the 16th century the emphasis was shifting to secular work.

Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and at 16 she came to England as a bride to Arthur, Prince of Wales. After Arthur's death Catherine married Henry (Later Henry VIII) in 1509. Polychrome embroidery was popular in the first half of the 16th century but more so was linear embroidery in monochrome silk. Referred to at this early stage as Spanish work, Catherine had many examples in her wardrobe. Worked on the collars and cuffs of garments, the linear patterns resembled lace which was difficult to obtain in Tudor times (Picture 1). After Catherine became Queen the court wanted to emulate her and blackwork's popularity grew. These linear patterns were so often painted by court painter Hans Holbein that the double running stitch, which was often used, has become known as Holbein stitch.

1. Linear patterns worked by the author on 19-count linen and Aida fabrics.

When Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church and dissolved the monasteries and convents the emphasis of needlework shifted even more to secular items. The Tudor embroideress was of the upper or upper middle class and she and her household began making cushions, pillows, coverlets, hangings, curtains, and carpets. Clothing such as night caps, shirts, jackets, sleeves, coifs, stomachers, gloves and purses were also embellished with embroidery.

2. Copy of an Elizabethan piece in work by the author. Piece is worked on 30/inch linen.

With the dawn of Elizabethan times the ordered patterns of former times gave way to scrolling stems and lots of flowers. Columbines, pansies, carnations, roses, lilies, daffodils, pomegranates, acorns, animals, birds, fishes, grapes, butterflies, and insects were popular motifs (Picture 2). Books were beginning to be printed and the English love of flowers and animals made Herbals popular. The woodcut illustrations in these books again reinforced the black and white popularity. The filling patterns used in Elizabethan blackwork were of a uniform density. This enhanced the lace like effect of the blackwork (Picture 3).

3. Contemporary use of Elizabethan flowers worked for Certification by the author. Black silk thread on 30/inch linen.

With the Stuarts and the Jacobean period, blackwork's popularity declined. The floral motifs and scrolling stems were still used but, now the flowers were filled with small running stitches, randomly done, called speckling. Since the early 17th century blackwork has had some revivals, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. Blackwork is in its greatest revival at the moment.

Today we not only have revived blackwork in the traditional way but have added new dimensions. Today you will find blackwork done in colors and with various methods of shading (Picture 4)

4. Three kings. Kit designed by author for Bucilla. Worked on Hardanger with colored rayon threads. Wool accents and metal thread crowns.

Originally blackwork was done on fine white linen with black silk thread. Today we work on counted thread fabrics using the even weave to establish the geometric filling patterns. We can work on any count evenweave we desire from large, say 8/inch Aida, to very fine, say 30 or more count linen. The fabrics offered include linen, cotton, polyester and blends. Silk thread is still a lovely choice to make but one can also use cotton, rayon, or linen. Today we usually use a thread or plies of thread equal to the weight of one thread of the ground fabric and outline with a heavier thread.

Click here to see a Blackwork Santa worked by the author -- and the charts for some of the filling patterns.
5. Example of counted thread outline. Knight and Lady competition piece worked by the author for the Counted Thread Society competition.

In today's blackwork you may work your filling patterns by a number of methods. They may be done in double running stitch and can be made reversible. You may work the patterns all in back stitch or you may use a combination of the two stitches. The fabric you are working on and the effect you want to achieve will determine the most suitable method of working your patterns. We are also able to use options on our method of outlining the piece. If an angular effect is wanted you may count your outline (Picture 5). To create a smooth outline you may use any linear embroidery stitch which gives the effect you like. Use a sharp needle and pierce the threads of the fabric. Ignore the fact it is a counted thread fabric. The Elizabethan pieces used plaited braid stitch extensively. Today you may choose to have no outlines at all on your piece. If this is your choice, baste your design on so you will have no lines showing.

6. Violets. Worked by the author on canvas in black floss and perle cotton.

Canvas could be considered one of the counted thread fabrics. The sizing which holds the holes more open than a linen takes special care in the choice of blackwork patterns and the method of working them, carry-over threads tend to show through to the front. The outline could be worked in continental or counted, but I prefer to use a sharp needle and treat the outlines as if I were working on embroidery fabric (Picture 6).

7. Peony worked by author in basic blackwork in black floss and perle on Hardanger.

The most exciting aspect of our revival for me is the experimenting and combining being done today. The same design worked in basic blackwork takes on a new dimension when shaded (Pictures 7 & 8). Blackwork may be combined with other forms of needlework. Try pulled thread, Hardanger, Assisi, and then let your imagination go.

8. Peony worked by author in shaded blackwork in 4 values of pink on Hardanger.

This selection of books on blackwork will help you get started on your discovery of this lovely technique.

  • Blackwork Embroidery Patterns. Jane D. Zimmerman. Self-published 1975
  • Blackwork. Elizabeth Geddes & Moyra McNeill. Dover, New York 1974
  • Folio of Blackwork Patterns. Marion E. Scoular. Self-published undated
  • Blackwork. Marion Scoular. Leisure Arts #82 Libertyville, Illinois 1976
  • Blackwork. Mary Gostelow. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York 1976
  • Art of Blackwork Embroidery. Rosemary Drysdale. Scribner, New York 1975
  • Reversible Blackwork. Ilse Altherr. Self-published 1978
  • Exploring Blackwork. Rosemary Cornelius. Sinbad Series 1974
  • The Craft of Blackwork and Whitework. Erica Wilson. Scribner, New York 1973
  • Embroider Now. Helsie van Wyk. Perskor Publishing. Johannesburg, South Africa 1977
  • Blackwork & Holbein Embroidery. Ilse Altherr. Self-published, 1981
  • Blackwork. Joan Edwards. Dorking, Suny, England, Bayford Books 1980