Blackwork is a counted cross-stitch technique executed in black thread on a light background evenweave fabric. Please note, blackwork may not be done with black thread (it can be red, white, or any color). It also can be done on a non- evenweave fabric, and it doesn’t have to be light colored.
Motifs and designs are generally outlined in running stitch (also called Holbein stitch–see below) and filled in with different shading patterns. This is a very old technique, sometimes called “Spanish work,” because of it’s introduction into the English court by Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain’s Isabella and Ferdinand. Catherine was sent to England to marry Prince Arthur, who died and she subsequently married his brother Henry the VIII. Suffice to say huge drama ensued, the likes of which makes any Joan Collins’ character appear tame. Affairs were carried out, bastard children conceived,state religions formed and wives divorced or beheaded. (Catherine gave birth to Mary, and Henry fell in love with her lady-in-waiting, Ann. Neither the Pope nor Catherine would grant Henry an anullment, so Henry formed his own church (the still existing Church of England), anulled his marriage to Catherine, married already pregnant Ann, who gave birth to Elizabeth; then Henry executed Ann so he might marry his next wife, Jane Seymour [not the one who “designs” butt shaped jewelry]).
Throughout all of this hullalabaloo in the early to mid 16th century, one of the favored forms of embroidery was blackwork. Technically difficult, blackwork can be made reversible for use on cuffs, but is not necessary. There exists no actual samples from this time, because the fabrics’ tendency to decompose was further hastened by the corrosive nature of the iron-based dye which gave the thread its distinct color.
We do, however, have record of the patterns preserved in the paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). Holbein was the court painter to King Henry VIII. His Jane Seymour portrait from 1537, the pattern is available here.
Elizabethan blackwork underwent a resurgence in popularity in the Victorian era. I am on a quest to find contemporary embroiderers who are employing this technique in new ways. I would love to find more.
Maria delValle of Argentina recently produced this piece.
Jocelyn at Pinsneedles in Auckland, New Zealand has this to offer.