A Blackwork Primer

A Blackwork Primer

Mevanou verch Reys Yriskynit

© Tina Marie Comroe 2013

“Blackwork is black, except when it’s not. Blackwork is reversible, except when it’s not. Blackwork is a counted thread technique, except when it’s not. Blackwork is called “Blackwork,” except (you guessed it) when it’s not.”[a]

The simplest definition of “Blackwork” is monochrome embroidery on linen, but it is more than that – there are many traditional monochrome-on-linen embroideries that are most certainly NOT Blackwork.  And so, rather than trying to define with rules, we define with STYLE – whether counted, scrollwork, or strap work, in any color, “Blackwork” has a look all its own.

The roots of Blackwork embroidery seem to be in the Middle East – some of the earliest recognizable finds are pieces from 14th-15th century Coptic tombs. As in, Egyptian Tombs.  The technique journeyed into Europe – in the baggage of Crusaders or pilgrims or along the trade routes perhaps? And finally made its way to every western country, but seemed to find it’s most welcoming home in the productive minds of England…

Black work is again commonly known as Spanish work. Catherine of Aragon was the wife of Henry VIII. She is believed to have brought garments in to England from Spain and they had black work on them. Black work is done using only black thread. This Urban Myth is totally untrue. 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.

Historic Blackwork embroidery is rare to find well-preserved, as the iron-based dye used was corrosive to the thread, and there are currently no conservation techniques that can stop the decay. Black embroidery silk from outside England, such as Spain, contained less iron in the black dye and so Blackwork worked using non-English silk tends to survive in better condition.

The stitches used for counted thread blackwork are double running or Holbein stitch, backstitch, and sometimes stem stitch. I myself have used split stitch to outline and often fill areas as well. Historically it(blackwork) was done on plain weave fabric. Modern hobbyists often use even weave fabric made especially 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 hobbyists.

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.

Holbein Stitch

Also known as: Double running stitch, Line stitch, Two-sided holbein_stitch_2Line stitch, Two-sided Stroke stitch, Square stitch, Chiara stitch

This stitch follows a pattern where a running stitch is done and the gaps between the running stitch is filled during a return journey of the needle and thread. This causes the stitch to bring out identical patterns on either sides of the cloth.

Looking at the history of it, Holbein stitch derives its name from Hans Holbein the younger, who was a German artist. He was a portrait painter of the 16th century, who is more known to have painted Henry VIII and his children wearing clothing with ‘Blackwork embroidery’.


The Back Stitch, also known as Hem Stitch, is a neat stitch utilized in both embroidery and plain sewing but is used mainly to ornament linen or fine Back stitch1canvas. It is a popular stitch with quilters. It is most easily used on even weave fabrics where threads can be counted to ensure even stitches. It can be use effectively on simple as well as complex outlines. When completed, it looks much like machine stitching. Back stitch can be worked in any direction. Although a wonderful stitch for outlining, it should never be used as a fill stitch.

Work is done from top to bottom or from right to left.

Bring the needle up upon a traced line, and insert it into the material, a little behind where it came up, and bring it out a little beyond, both putting it in and bringing it out upon the straight lie. Put the needle down again in the same hole made when it first came up, and bring it out again on the line a few threads forward. Continue to make small even stitches in this way along the line. The beauty of the stitch depends upon every stitch being made of the same size, and kept in an even line. Victorian ladies were advised to draw a thread for a guide. Today, if this is not possible or practical; a pen with disappearing ink or temporary marking pencil may be used.

Stem Stitch

The Stem Stitch is an outline stitch, but it gives an effect of greater width thanstem1a the Kensington Outline. It is used whenever a heavier outline than the Kensington is needed to secure a well balanced result in the whole design, and when the Long and Short Stitch would prove too heavy. This stitch consists of a closely set row of short stitches, which are placed in a slanting direction within the outline. This stitch may be worked without a frame. Send the needle up from beneath, just within the outline; if you are working a leaf, then begin at the stem. Keeping the needle pointed downwards, insert the point of the needle on the outline a little above, so that the stitch shall slant upward, and bring it up again, within the line, a little above the first stitch. Follow the outline in this manner to the tip and back to the stem on the left side (see figure above.) The more the angle is increased the wider the line becomes. This stitch is of especial value in stems, which need to be wider than the ordinary outline which make them, and it is from this that the stitch gains its name.

The Split Stitch forms a narrow outline which lies close to the fabric and on split stitchthis account can be used to better advantage for outlining curves than the Kensington Outline Stitch. This stitch should be worked toward you from a point farther away. It may be made in the hand, but less silk is required if it is worked in a frame. To work it in the hand, bring the needle up at the nearest point of the outline, send it down a little in advance and out again just beyond, as though making a seam or running stitch. Now take a back stitch, inserting the point of the needle in the end of the first stitch instead of beside it, thus splitting the silk. Proceed with this back stitch until the outline is covered. The illustration below shows the stitch as taken when the fabric is held in the hand.
When the stitch is worked in a frame the needle may be sent up through the end of the stitch; thus making a very short stitch upon the under side, instead of the very long stitch required in back stitch. The effect upon the underside is a line of neat little back stitches.

Books to look for:

1.  Blackwork Embroidery (Dover Embroidery, Needlepoint) by Elisabeth Geddes

2.  Blackwork by Lesley Barnett

3.  Beginner’s Guide to Blackwork by Lesley Wilkins

4.  The art of English blackwork by Jane D. Zimmerman

5.  Blackwork Embroidery: Design and Technique by Margaret Pascoe


Internet Sources

1. Blackwork Embroidery Primer


2. Blackwork Embroidery Archive


3. Downloadable Middle Eastern Samplers


4. Embroidery Stitches


5. Middle Eastern Double Running Stitch Embroidery


6. Medieval Egyptian double running stitch Embroidery


7. Coptic Embroidery Patterns for Double Running Stitch


8. Lady Roxanne’s Blackwork Article – found later in entirety at:


[a]  http://www.prettyimpressivestuff.com/blackwork.htm Excerpt from Lady Roxannes Blackwork Article

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