Blackwork is a simple needlework technique that uses simple stitches to create complex geometric patterns. It can be stitched in any color, or any kind of canvas or fabric, and can stand on its own or be used to fill other shapes. It’s been popular for over 500 years and almost anyone can create stunning designs with it. Throughout the post, you’ll see pictures of some of my Blackwork projects.
Origins of Blackwork
Many people think of Blackwork as being English and associate it with the Tudors. While it was very popular during this period, it came to England from Spain with Catherine of Aragon.
Although how it came to Spain isn’t known, some people think its origins are Moorish because of the use of non-representational patterns. Moorish art relied on geometric patterns because depicting human figures is forbidden to Moslems.
It’s popularity in England is easily documented. It’s often seen in portraits of the time. I’ve seen it on working men’s smocks and in portraits of the nobility. It’s even occasionally seen on royal portraits.
One reason for it’s popularity is that it looks like lace. Real lace is expensive to make and often wearing it was restricted to certain classes. With Blackwork, you get the look at a lower cost.
The Stitches and Patterns of Blackwork
Blackwork uses three stitches:
- Backstitch: a straight stitch going over one or more threads. This stitch can also be made so the line looks the same on the front and back. That version is called either Double Ruynning Stitch or Holbein Stitch.
- Diagonal Stitch: a stitch going over one or more intersections, either on the true diagonal or oblique
- Cross Stitch: these can be either regular crosses (x) or upright crosses (+).
Blackwork patterns can get more dense by adding more lines and stitches to the pattern. The wallet pictured at the top if this section shows how a pattern can get darker and more dense in this way.
The patterns you’ve seen in the article so far are all examples of what are called fill patterns. These are overall patterns that can be used to fill up a space, whether it’s defined by solidly stitched lines or not.
There are two other kinds of patterns. Medallions are stand-alone motifs that are not repeated. The center of the Mosaic, pictured above, is a medallion. Line Patterns are another word for borders. Two line patterns in the free border sampler are pictured below.
Threads for Blackwork
Traditionally Blackwork is stitched with black silk or cotton on a white ground. It can also have gold accents.
However you do not need to be limited to these colors or fibers. As you can see from the projects pictured, I’ve stitched Blackwork with multi-colored threads (owl), pearl cotton (border), wool (mosaic), and metallic (rooster).
Today just about anything goes. If you do use a multi-colored or hand-dyed thread for Blackwork, do not use Double Running Stitch, it can make the line look dotted.
You will get the best results if your threads are thin for the canvas. In this technique the canvas is an essential part of the look, so it should show. In addition, thinner threads will make sharper, cleaner lines.
I also find Blackwork slightly easier to stitch with single strand threads such as pearl cotton, although I have often used stranded threads.
Using Blackwork in Needlepoint
If you’ve been looking at the Blackwork Projects pictured, you see that all of them show canvas. Unless Blackwork is stitched over an area of sold Tent Stitches, it is an open canvas technique. This means it will always look lower than solidly stitched areas around it. You can see this clearly in the owl at the top of the article.
If you will be using Blackwork in needlepoint it shines as backgrounds. The Kelly Clark rooster below (stitch guide available from Napa Needlepoint), uses a Blackwork pattern that looks like chicken wire. Blackwork patterns make wonderful backgrounds because they recede from any needlepoint stitch, so they always look far away.
Projects that combine many different Blackwork patterns into one piece also are great uses of Blackwork. Because the canvas is exposed, Blackwork can also be effectively combined with techniques to color the canvas for a great look. The Autumn Leaves Bellpull in the current beginner’s bundle does this. I’ve also done other coloring techniques combined with Blackwork on three different Christmas stockings.
A Blackwork Gift for You
Readers of this article can get this lovely cross featuring Blackwork Celtic interlacing as a free gift. Just send me a message using the contact page. Put in the message “free blackwork.”
About Janet M Perry
Janet Perry is the Internet's leading authority on needlepoint. She designs, teaches and writes, getting raves from her fans for her innovative techniques, extensive knowledge and generous teaching style. A leading writer of stitch guides, she blogs here and lives on an island in the northeast corner of the SF Bay with her family
Barbara West says
Janet, I enjoy your blog very much! I’m intending to try blackwork soon, so this post and the “related” links caught my eye. In this post one of the photo captions refers to “the book” but the book isn’t named, that I can find. Is it the Heart of Blackwork mentioned in another post, or one of your own? I can’t seem to connect to your online shop or I’d check there.
Janet M Perry says
The book would be my Blackwork Beauties project book. You can order it as a PDF from my ecommerce site, Napa Needlepoint (http://www.napaneedlepoint.com). It can be ordered as a printed project pack from me or through any needlework shop.
Barbara West says