My introduction to blackwork embroidery

A few years ago two fellow designers, Carol Leather and Liz Bartlett, challenged me to design something in blackwork embroidery and then they kept on challenging me until I gave in, just to prove to them it was impossible. I'd seen blackwork, after all, and whatever they said - anything that looked that intricate had to be difficult and stressful to produce - and I'm the Queen of stress-free stitching!

So in the spirit of determining to fail I got a book telling me the basic principles and started designing Dancing The Charleston, in honour of my grandmother, who never forgot how to dance it.

Then because I couldn't find anyone else to stitch the design, I had to do it, and two days later found I was totally and utterly hooked on blackwork, that it was easier than counted cross-stitch and I could see much faster if I'd gone wrong. When I did go wrong it was so much easier to un-pick.

I have written some tips for designing blackwork that may help you if you want to try it yourself.

History of Blackwork Embroidery

tudor-rose-blackwork-kit (69K)

If you are anything like me you'll probably skip this the first time around and head for the how to section first. After that you may feel the need to look at blackwork origins and history.

Appearing in Europe in the sixteenth century, a repeating geometric pattern was used to decorate collars and cuffs. It has been suggested these types of geometric repeating patterns of fruit and flowers might have an earlier Arabian origin.

Outlines around the designs were frequently in chain stitch unlike today where a backstitch outline is more usual. The pattern was stitched using a double running stitch that was identical both back and front. This is known as Holbein stitch taking its name from the court pictures painted by Hans Holbein showing courtiers wearing these decorated clothes.

By the time of Elizabeth 1, blackwork was used to fill in whole areas of clothing in a series of floral and geometric designs and was also used to decorate household furnishings.

It reappears again in the 1920s and 1930s to embroider household articles but by the late twentieth century designers were re-introducing a lot of old techniques with a new slant and discovering how versatile this technique could be.

Modern Blackwork

musicians-blackwork (20K)Blackwork embroidery today has moved on from its earlier forms. It can be used to illustrate many different subjects.

Modern blackwork still depends on the contrast between light and dark, where the thread colour contrasts with that of the fabric beneath and contrast can also be found between stitched areas, in the shades used and the density of infill pattern used for each part.

It is a counted thread technique stitched on evenly woven fabric such as aida or evenweave and this ensures that the infill pattern is repeated precisely over an equal number of threads.

It is best stitched with a blunt ended tapestry needle to allow the needle to pass easily between threads.

Generally an outline in 2 strands of thread delineates the object being stitched and within that border a repeating pattern in 1 thread appears, although that pattern may alter slightly to produce a shaded three- dimensional effect. Backstitch is most commonly used but other stitches also shown below can be used instead.

Not all blackwork infill patterns have an outline. Contrast can be obtained without it. In the design shown below the figures in the foreground have a clear outline but the foliage on the branches behind are not so solid and are not outlined. Instead the infill pattern changes within the foliage in contrast.

As a general point its always worth starting your work from the middle and commence your work with one of the methods outlined in the section on cross stitch.

Remember with blackwork that blank expanses of fabric are part of the design and therefore you have to be more careful than with cross-stitch in carrying thread across the back of the design when moving from row to row.

Also when you finish stitching, any loose ends really do need to be woven into the back of the completed embroidery so they don't show through. I often find it useful before heading in the direction of my long-suffering framer, to hold the completed picture to the light. If a loose thread can be seen then I know it will show through the when the work is framed and hanging on the wall and is best corrected now before it starts driving me crazy every time I look at it.

I have good friends who don't stitch who cannot understand that stitching can become all consuming. They do notice the ironing piling up and that the vacuum cleaner is frequently lost somewhere - if only I could remember what day I saw it last. In view of this they are totally perplexed as to how a stray thread showing though a framed piece of work can act as a continuing irritant to the person who stitched it. "But" they say, "the rest of it looks very nice." Grr!!!!

Stitches Used In Blackwork Embroidery


Blackwork can be stitched using stab stitch where you just stab the needle through one hole in the fabric and bring it up again or in backstitch illustrated below.

backstitch-instructions (8K)

Backstitch is represented by lines on the chart and can be stitch horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Bring needle up at A, down at B, up at C, down at A and up at D. Continue until outline is complete.

Stem stitch

stem-stitch (7K)

To achieve a slightly thicker outline you can use stem stitch rather than backstitch. This is worked left to right.

Bring needle up at A, then inset at B and bring it up again at C. To keep the length of each stitch even, keep the same distance between A-B as you do between C-B.

Chain stitch

chain-stitch-01 (12K)To achieve an even thicker outline you can revert to Tudor times and use chain stitch.

This is a lovely stitch to use because it can curve so beautifully. As per the illustrations bring needle up at A and leaving a loop, put needle back down through A. Then bring needle up at B, which becomes the new A for the next stitch. You determine how large each chain is but the aim is to keep them the same size.

To finish a row, make a small holding stitch at the loop of the last chain, to anchor it.

chain-stitch-02 (10K)

chain-stitch-03 (9K)

More chain stitch variations