The history of Blackwork

Blackwork was popularised in England during the reign of Henry VIII (1509—1547).This technique was generally thought to have been introduced by Catherine of Aragon (Queen of England from 1509-1533), w ho brought it from its Moorish roots in Spain. This fine technique was a counted embroidery worked in black silk thread on a fine linen cambric or Holland fabric, and was famed for its textural patterns and illustrative qualities throughout the Tudor period and into die early 17th century.There are several different methods that come under the heading
of blackwork through its history, including the double running stitch method, the diaper pattern style and later the speckling style. The characteristics o f the technique changed as developments in materials and styles progressed.
Blackwork diaper patterns shared their use o f geometric pattern tessellation and repartition with Moorish design; many patterns used in blackwork can also be found in Moorish architecture such as at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. These designs developed into complex and intricate patterns as a response to the Muslim faith, which forbids
figurative representation. Diaper patterns were very intricate and almost lacy in appearance, creating incredibly complex arrangements through adjoining back stitches.They would often be used to fill an area, for example a leaf o r flower, and then oudined with stem o r chain stitch, and is the method of blackwork which is most popular today.
During the rule o f Henry VIII, blackwork became fashionable on linen garments including w omen’s jackets and smocks, and on the collars, sleeves and cufB of men’s shirts. These shirt edgings were decorated with geometric patterns worked in a black doublerunning stitch, which embroidered the reverse of the fabric as neady as the front.
Examples can be seen in portraiture o f the rime by the artist Hans Holbein, who had been Henry V III’s court painter. As so many o f Holbein’s paintings depicted the technique, the famed double running stitch was named
Holbein stitch after him.Paintings remain a valuable historical source o f research into blackwork, as original examples are rare, pardydue to the iron mordant used to set the black dye, which would cause the silk
thread to decay over time. Some fascinating examples can be seen where the needle holes o f the embroidery arc still visible but the thread has disappeared, revealing the inked out pattern beneath. T he care o f garments and the
variation in the recipes for the black dye also played a significant part in the longevity o f the embroidery.
The English style of  blackwork developed in the 1590s as printed pattern books (inspired by Herbals, nature books and engravings).
These became more available and were widely used as a source of inspiration for embroidery design.The geometric, counted diaper patterns were now replaced by a technique called ‘speckling’. It is thought that the development
o f speckling stitches used in the embroidery reflected the quality o f the woodcut printing in these books. Speckling was a technique made up o f a series o f small seed-like running stitches or back stitches, which would become
slightly longer and denser towards the edge of a motif to give subtle shading effects. As well as using monochrome black thread, white linen and black silk were spun together to achieve the desired woodblock effect. This was then
outlined with stitches including chain, stem or buttonhole. Designs included scrolling patterns o f leaves, fruit, flowers, insects, fish, figures and even mythical beasts, which appeared in popular pattern books like
Richard Shorleyker’s ‘A Scholc-House for the Needle’, published in London in 1624.
There was definitely a visual affinity between black on white embroidery and printed illustration. As well as the popular black silk embroidery, the technique was also worked in red, blue and green and would often be embellished
with precious silver- gilt threads and spangles.

blacworkQuene Elizabeth’s Blackwork
Sleeve Unpick’d
Worked by Nicola Jarvis. This artwork was inspired
by the paintings of Tudor period, showing blackwork
embroidery as seen on the clothing of the time.
The design brings together drawing and stitch.

See also blackwork patterns

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