Welcome to the 14th Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles blog post. This month Isabella Rosner is discussing one of my favourite embroidery techniques, Blackwork. I know you may be thinking that this technique does not date back to the early medieval period but you’re in for a surprise. Enjoy.
Isabella Rosner is a second-year Ph.D. student at King’s College London, where she researches and writes about Quaker women’s decorative arts before 1800. Her project focuses specifically on seventeenth-century English needlework and eighteenth-century Philadelphia wax and shellwork. She received her BA from Columbia University and her MPhil from Cambridge University and has been lucky enough to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, LACMA, Colonial Williamsburg, and Fitzwilliam Museum. Isabella specializes in the study of schoolgirl samplers and early modern women’s needlework in addition to hosting the “Sew What?” podcast about historic needlework and those who stitched it.
In 1689, English writer Aphra Behn wrote a novella called The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker. In it, at the moment when a character named Isabella considers a murder, Behn writes: “when Fate begins to afflict, she goes through-stitch with her Black Work.” Behn envisions Fate embroidering, with “Black Work” referring to not only evil doings, but also to a style of stitching that took Europe by storm for more than a century. Even though blackwork embroidery reached its peak in the sixteenth century, Behn’s novella demonstrates that echoes of its influence and popularity were still felt a century later.
What is Blackwork?
It is hard to speak in absolutes when it comes to blackwork. Just as its name suggests, blackwork is a form of embroidery that involves stitching with black thread. But not always, as sometimes it is done in other thread colours like gold, silver, blue, or green. It is a form of counted-thread embroidery, except when it is not. When it is counted, it is stitched on an even-weave linen or cotton. When it is not counted, when a stitcher embroiders curvilinear stems, flowers, and fruit, a fabric’s weave does not matter. Historically, no matter how blackwork was stitched, what fabric it was stitched upon, or what thread colour was used, the embroidery technique was used most often for clothing such as shirts, smocks, ruffs, caps, and sleeves.
Origins of Blackwork
Although blackwork is typically associated with the sixteenth century, European needleworkers were stitching blackwork at least eight centuries earlier. Though it was often historically called “Spanish blackwork” because of its connection to Catherine of Aragon, that term may actually tell us much about its possible origins long before Catherine.
In the eighth century, Muslim populations in North Africa, who decorated their garments with geometricized motifs and borders, moved into southern Spain and influenced the needlework of Toledo, Almeria, and Andalusia. Surviving needlework from this region features geometric designs very similar to those often associated with blackwork, but in a variety of other thread colours. Could the root of blackwork come from southern Spain via North Africa? Perhaps further research will shed light on this mystery.
It was typically thought that blackwork came to England via Catherine of Aragon, but this is not the case. A.F. Kendrick, a textile curator at the V&A, said it best in his 1933 book English Needlework:
“The theory that the vogue came into England with Catherine of Aragon is no longer tenable, for references to such black embroidery occur at a much earlier date, in the late fifteenth century, while its appearance in French, German and English portraits of the beginning of the sixteenth century shows that it was already a general European fashion. None the less the stitch was sometimes referred to as Spanish stitch as, for example, in a book of patterns published by P. Quentel in 1527 in Cologne.”
Why the stitch associated with blackwork was called Spanish across Europe, as indicated by Peter Quentel’s pattern book published in Germany and Catherine of Aragon’s wardrobe list, which includes sheets “wroughte with Spanysshe worke of blacke silke upon the edgies,” is unclear. There is clearly more to the origins of blackwork to uncover.
In England, around the time of Catherine of Aragon’s divorce from King Henry in 1533, the term “Spanish work” was replaced with “blackwork.” Blackwork was first utilised by the English elite before being taken up by all sorts of needleworkers. This was partially thanks to the increased production of pattern books. One such example was Thomas Geminus’ 1548 Moryssche & Damaschin renewed and increased, very profitable for Goldsmiths and Embroiderers, printed in London. The book’s arabesque designs quickly became popular among blackwork embroiderers. But the intense popularity of blackwork in England was not to last. By the second half of the seventeenth century, blackwork had fallen out of favour, replaced by polychrome, pictorial designs and biblical scenes.
Blackwork Techniques and Motifs
The main stitches used in blackwork are backstitch and double running stitch, also fittingly known as Holbein stitch. Double running stitch was used on blackwork collars and cuffs, as stitches were visible on both sides, whereas backstitch was more suitable for objects like caps and forehead cloths, whose stitches were only seen from one side. Linen, and to a lesser extent cotton, were historically the fabrics of choice due to their very even weaves.
There were three common styles of blackwork that were produced in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The earliest style consisted of counted stitches worked to make small geometric or floral patterns. It is this type of work that can often be seen in sixteenth-century portraits, including those of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein painted in 1537, Mary Tichborne by the Master of the Countess of Warwick in 1565, and numerous portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Most modern blackwork, with its emphasis on counted stitches and geometric pattern, is done in this style.
Later blackwork was stitched freehand rather than in counted thread. These later examples featured flowers, fruit, and sometimes insects connected by curving stems. This later blackwork closely resembled contemporaneous polychrome embroidery – both had scrolling, sinuous vines from which flowers and fruits blossomed. The difference between blackwork and polychrome needlework of the time lay in their stitches. Whereas polychrome examples were filled in with detached buttonhole or satin stitches, blackwork designs were outlined in stem stitch and then filled in with geometric counted designs. Portraits that include this later style of blackwork include one of Elizabeth I painted by an unknown artist in 1590 and an unknown lady painted by John Bettes the Younger in 1587-97.
Another style consisted of outlined patterns, either counted or freehand, that were shaded with random seed stitches or more ordered running and back stitches, resulting in a design that resembled contemporary etchings and woodcuts. This style emerged in the 1590s to mirror the print sources that inspired the stitching itself.
Historic Uses of Blackwork and What Survives
Extant pieces of blackwork and contemporaneous portraits tell us that blackwork embroidery was popular across England, Italy, Spain, and Germany amongst anyone who had the resources and time to undertake decorative needlework. In addition to the English portraits mentioned in the previous section and the many portraits from that region not listed, portraits featuring blackwork embroidery from continental Europe include Juan de Borgoña’s circa 1505 Lady with Hare, Jan van Scorel’s circa 1520 Portrait of a Venetian Man, and Conrad Faber von Creuznach’s 1526 portrait of Margarete Stralenberger.
Instances of blackwork in portraiture of the period are much more common than surviving pieces of blackwork itself. This is because some pieces were stitched with silk embroidery thread that was fixed with iron. The iron has oxidised, causing the thread to disintegrate, a loss that cannot be prevented or fixed through conservation. Blackwork made outside of England usually involved black threads whose dye contained less iron, so blackwork stitched using non-English silk tends to survive more often and in better condition.
But this is not to say that there is a complete absence of historic blackwork from England. Luckily for us, some exceptional examples survive, but nearly all are later examples. The oldest garment in the Fashion Museum’s collection is a blackwork embroidered man’s shirt from 1580-90, decorated with flowers, insects, and flaming hearts united by sinuous vines. The Victoria and Albert Museum has perhaps the largest collection of English blackwork, including numerous coifs, forehead cloths, hoods, men’s nightcaps, sleeve panels, pillowcases, jackets, waistcoats, stomachers, and part of a smock. Most of these pieces are from the tail end of the sixteenth century or beginning of the seventeenth and nearly all feature free stitch rather than counted stitch work. Similar pieces of blackwork can be seen in the Burrell Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, and other museum and private collections.
This blog post has embraced the past tense when talking about blackwork, but the embroidery technique is far from a thing of the past. Blackwork is taught and made all over the world in the twenty-first century. It is such a significant and important needlework technique that it is taught by the Royal School of Needlework as part of their BA (Hons) degree and standalone classes. According to the RSN, “Blackwork progressed in the 20th century and the RSN now uses it to portray realism and form through differing densities of thread and pattern to create tonal shading.” The teaching of blackwork by one of the world’s premiere embroidery institutions illustrates just how integral the technique is to a thorough knowledge of modern needlework.
More than 500 years after its spread from Spain to the British Isles and the rest of continental Europe, blackwork may no longer adorn our cuffs, collars, and caps, but it is still very much alive in the hands of needleworkers. Even centuries later, blackwork embroidery still has the ability to transform monochrome threads into precise stitches that create rich, vibrant patterns and designs.
Thank you to Isabella for this overview of blackwork. As you have just read, this amazing and versatile technique is still popular today with people embracing both more traditional and futuristic approaches. And it dates to at least as far back as the eighth century!
Next month Fara Otterbeck will be discussing her reconstruction of an early medieval hood using authentic materials and equipment.
Contact: If you would like to contact Isabella or follow on social media her work, please use one of the links below:
Sew What? podcast
Behn, Aphra. The History of the Nun, or, The Fair Vow-Breaker. London, England: printed for
- Baskerville, 1689.
Kendrick, A.F. English Needlework. London, England: Adam and Charles Black, 1967.
Mayer, Christa C. Textiles in the Art Institute of Chicago. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992.
North, Susan. “‘An Instrument of profit, pleasure, and of ornament’: Embroidered Tudor
and Jacobean Dress Accessories.” In Andrew Morrall and Melinda Watt, eds., English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15800-1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2008.
“Waistcoat.” Victoria and Albert Museum. https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O137739/jacket-unknown/waistcoat-unknown/.
Great resources for modern blackwork embroidery: