Blackwork, sometimes historically termed Spanish blackwork, is a form of embroidery generally using black thread, although other colors were also used on occasion. Sometimes it iscounted-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 linenor 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 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 hobby stitchers.
- Later blackwork features large designs of flowers, fruit, and other patterns connected bycurvilinear 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 calledseed stitches. This style of blackwork imitates etchings or woodcuts.
Historically, blackwork was used on shirts and chemises or smocksin 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. 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 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.
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.