Blackwork Embroidery: Wikis


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Counted stitch Blackwork, 1530s (left), and free stitch Blackwork, 1590s (right).

Blackwork Embroidery is a form embroidery using black thread. Sometimes it is counted-thread embroidery which is usually stitched on even-weave fabric. Any black thread can be used, but firmly twisted threads give a better look than embroidery floss. Traditionally blackwork is stitched in silk thread on white or off-white linen or cotton fabric. Sometimes metallic threads or coloured threads are used for accents.

Scarletwork is like blackwork, except it is sewn with red thread.



The stitches used for counted thread blackwork are double running or holbein stitch, backstitch, and sometimes stem stitch. Historically it was done on plain weave fabric. Modern stitchers often use even weave fabric made specially for counted thread work.

Historically, there are three common styles of blackwork:

  • In the earliest blackwork, counted stitches are worked to make a geometric or small floral pattern. Most modern blackwork is in this style, especially the commercially-produced patterns that are marketed for hobby stitchers.
  • Later blackwork features large designs of flowers, fruit, and other patterns connected by curvilinear stems. These are frequently not counted thread work and are outlined with stem stitch, and the outlined patterns are filled with geometric counted designs.
  • In the third style of blackwork, the outlined patterns are "shaded" with random stitches called seed stitches. This style of blackwork imitates etchings or woodcuts.


Early Spanish blackwork:Borgoña's Lady with Hare wears a chemise embroidered at the neckline and on the sleeves, c. 1505, Toledo.

Historically, blackwork was used on shirts and chemises or smocks in England from the time of Henry VIII. The common name "Spanish work" was based on the belief that Catherine of Aragon brought many blackwork garments with her from Spain, and portraits of the later 15th and early 16th centuries show black embroidery or other trim on Spanish chemises.[1]. Black embroidery was known in England before 1500. Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales describes the clothing of the miller's wife, Alison: "Of white, too, was the dainty smock she wore, embroidered at the collar all about with coal-black silk, alike within and out."

Blackwork in silk on linen was the most common domestic embroidery technique for clothing (shirts, smocks, sleeves, ruffs, and caps) and for household items such as cushion covers throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, but it lost its popularity by the 17th century. (See also 1550-1600 in fashion.)

Historic blackwork embroidery is rarely preserved, as the iron-based dye used was corrosive to the thread. [2]

16th century blackwork

Modern blackwork

Ancient designs in modern blackwork

Blackwork remains popular. Common subjects among hobbyists include chessboards, maps, tudor houses, roses and cats. Much of the success of a blackwork design depends on how tone values are translated into stitches.

Today, the term "Blackwork" is used to refer to the technique, rather than the colour combination.


  1. ^ A. J. B. Wace "debunked" the Spanish origin in the 1930s, but if the black trim on these chemises from the 1470s is embroidery that would support an early Spanish origin
  2. ^ 1992, Christa Thurman, Textiles in the Art Institute of Chicago, ISBN 0810938561
  3. ^ Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, p. 40-41


  • Arnold, Janet: Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Leeds: W S Maney and Son Ltd, 1988. ISBN 0-901286-20-6
  • Digby, George Wingfield. Elizabethan Embroidery. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1964.
  • Gostelow, Mary. Blackwork, Batsford, 1976; Dover reprint, 1998, ISBN 0-486-40178-2
  • Readers Digest Complete Guide to Needlework, 1979, ISBN 0-89577-059-8.
  • Wace, A.J.B.: "English Embroideries Belonging to Sir John Carew Pole, Bart", Walpole Society Annual, 1932-33, Vol. XXI, p. 56, note 2.

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