May 22, 2007

Technique: Blackwork

Blackwork became popular in England during the reign of Henry VIII, and the style is often called Spanishe Worke, a name given to it due to its introduction to England being linked with the Henry's wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The portrait painter Hans Holbein the Younger became court painter to Henry VIII, and he painted Henry's queens wearing clothes richly decorated with Blackwork. The double-running stitch employed in Blackwork is often called Holbein stitch.

While most often associated with England, blackwork embroidery can be found in other parts of Europe as well.

During its most popular period of usage, three distinct styles of blackwork emerge, all of which co-existed together.

Linear, Reversible Blackwork
  • This is the type of work that most people associate with blackwork. It is a usually a counted thread design (though this is not always the case), which is reversible, that is, it looks the same from the front and the back. This style tends to be linear in nature and was mostly used on collars and cuffs of clothing.
  • It's popularity can be attested to by the fact that some form of blackwork can be seen in just about every surviving Tudor and Elizabethan portrait. One painter, Hans Holbein, detailed it so well that the stitch used to make this style of blackwork took on his name - Holbein Stitch. This type of blackwork can be done in either double running or back stitch.
Free Form Style with Geometric Fill Patterns
  • This is second most popular form of blackwork. This type of blackwork consists of free form shapes, (most popularly, flowers and leaves) that are then filled in with repeating geometric fill patterns. This type of blackwork was used extensively in the production of pillow covers and various forms of clothing, such as large sleeves, coifs, nightcaps, smocks and skirt foreparts.
Free Form Outlined Motifs - This type of blackwork comes in three versions:
  • The first is the use of scattered, individual motifs on items such as pillow beeres (cases) and other bed linens. These are usually done using stem or chain stitch.
  • The other form is a repetitive strapwork pattern, again done in stem stitch or chain stitch. Examples can be seen in the portraits of Henry VIII (shirts) and in skirt foreparts.
  • The final form is free form motifs with speckling stitch used to add shading to the motif. This is the last form of 16th Century blackwork to develop.

Examples of Historical Blackwork
There are many great free patterns for blackwork available on the web:


  1. Oooh, it's very dramatic. Thanks for the info and links!

  2. The blackwork is just stunning. I loved the history part too!

  3. Thank you so much for the info. I love the look of the blackwork. I had heard of redwork but not blackwork before.

  4. I've only just discovered blackwork and it's so lovely.Thanks for the info.