After seeing Tam’s blue blackwork bookmark on Monday’s Update post, Shelly asked for a definition of blackwork. Tam answered with this (I changed some words in the first sentence to accommodate a new link):

Hi Shelly,
You can find out all about it on the Practical Blackwork site. It has a wealth of information by Liadain with the historical context. Blackwork is mainly backstitch but put together is such a way that it forms intricate designs with lots of repetition of motifs. You can do it with one strand if you like light & delicate, 2 if you like it bolder (like me), throw in some colours or keep it monochrome. The patterns can be done over & over with various schemes so you can personalise it to your taste.

What a wonderful site! Thanks, Tam.

In a nutshell, Shell (couldn’t pass that up, now could I?), historically, Blackwork was done with black thread on cotton and linen garments, hence the name. But there’s also a style to it as Tam describes, and we can keep the style while changing the fiber, giving us blue blackwork and so on.

“Portrait of an Unknown Lady” circa 1587, attributed to John Bettes. The lady wears a magnificent wired cut-work collar, edged with lace, and sleeves richly embroidered with large blackwork floral motifs beneath gauze oversleeves. –from Blackwork Embroidery, by Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeill, published by Dover Publications, 1976.

Don’t look for embroidery names and techniques to make sense. They don’t.

Fringed bookmark with a blackwork motif I got from Marion Scoular, who also teaches the technique. I was experimenting with diagonal fringe but couldn’t resist adding a little something stitchy in the center.

Blackwork appeals to me for a number of reasons: it’s pretty; it’s simple to execute, but can produce complex designs; and it can be a puzzle. You see, some blackwork is reversible. The diagonal-fringe bookmark is, for instance. It takes some thought–some puzzling–to figure out how to make the design the same on the front and back, and I love figuring that out!

Categories: Needlework

5 replies »

  1. When done ‘properly’ blackwork is not actually “backstitch”, but rather more of a running stitch where you do the 1st stitch, the 3rd, the 5th and so on, and then return over the same path filling in the blank stitches. Good blackwork designs have a ‘pattern set’ which when followed in this way will allow the stitching to progress from one area to the next without any sign on the back of the piece — this technique will make your blackwork ‘reversible’ and be called “true blackwork”. Once you “see” the pattern set (which is the hardest part for me) and can follow it correctly, blackwork is an extremely easy technique, great for those new to stitching. Today most people are like me and do backstitching instead of a proper blackwork stitch, which my grandmother would have called “Lazy blackwork”.

  2. You’re right, Yoyo; the stitch used to make reversible blackwork is the double running stitch, sometimes called the Holbein stitch. Puzzling out the pattern sets can be very tricky–but oh-so-fun!

    There is another branch of blackwork, too, where designs are outlined with various stitches then shaded with seed stitch.

    I like all the branches of blackwork.

  3. Hmmmm. I especially loved this quote:

    “Blackwork is black, except when it isn’t. Blackwork is reversible, except when it isn’t. Blackwork is a counted thread technique, except when it isn’t….”
    Lady Roxanne’s Blackwork Article

    which made everything as clear as mud.

    I’ll take all of this under advisement.

  4. So, what’s the problem, Shelly? Your synopsis appeared thorough and your grasp of the material (yes, pun intended) is as good as anyone else’s. Mud, but very nice mud.