Embroidery Blog

What is Blackwork Embroidery?

If you've been stitching for a while, chances are, you've come across blackwork embroidery, a very popular needlework technique that has developed over the centuries to involve a variety of approaches and styles.

Today, blackwork is not always black (it often involves many colors!), but it is still recognizable as blackwork.

Let's take a look at blackwork embroidery and discuss what it is, how it's worked, and the different approaches that you can take when adding this particular type of needlework to your embroidery repertoire.

Blackwork embroidery with fillings Photos via Needle 'n Thread

What is blackwork embroidery?

Historically, blackwork embroidery consisted of different styles of stitchery: counted thread work on even-weave (or close to even-weave) fabrics, in lacy, geometric patterns; curvilinear blackwork, which involved heavier, flowing outlines worked on plain weave ground fabrics in surface stitches like stem stitch and filled with geometric filling patterns; and shaded blackwork, which involved heavier, flowing outlines filled with seed stitch worked in different densities to provide shading.

All three historical styles of blackwork have evolved over the centuries. Unless your goal is to produce authentic 15th - 17th-century needlework, you'll find there's lots of scope for mixing up blackwork into various creative interpretations.

Today, blackwork is more often presented as a combination of the first two styles mentioned above: counted thread work in geometric patterns, or counted work or surface embroidery featuring geometric, counted fillings.

Blackwork Embroidery Samples

Supplies used in blackwork

Fabric

Blackwork today is pretty much always worked on an even-weave cloth of some sort — either linen, Aida cloth, Hardanger fabric, or blends like Lugana and Jobelan, which are both cotton/rayon blends.

Like counted cross-stitch, blackwork can be worked over one or two threads of fabric. For finer, detailed blackwork, fabrics with higher thread counts work well. For bold blackwork patterns, you can try fabrics with a lower thread count, or your can stitch over two threads of fabric.

Threads

As mentioned above, blackwork is not confined to black threads! Modern blackwork often involves color, so don't be put off if you're a fan of using a lot of color in your embroidery.

The best threads for blackwork are generally twisted threads, like cotton or silk embroidery floss in different weights. Finer perle cottons, buttonhole silk twists, and the like are all fair game for blackwork!

For the beginner, simple stranded cotton makes a great starting thread. To vary the weight of the stitches, just add more strands of floss.

As you progress in your exploration of blackwork, you might decide to incorporate other cotton threads like floche and perle cottons, or twisted silks like buttonhole silk.

Needles

Unlike traditional styles of surface embroidery that utilize crewel or embroidery needles with sharp tips, blackwork employs the tapestry needle with its blunt tip, to make it easier to work the backstitch or double running stitch in the holes of the fabric.

A supply of various sizes of tapestry needles will come in handy when pursuing blackwork.

Hoops or frames

A hoop or frame is helpful when exploring blackwork. Keeping the ground fabric taut will aid in working stitches with even tension and with creating straight, neat lines.

Blackwork embroidery band sample

The stitches used in blackwork embroidery

The primary stitches used in blackwork embroidery are backstitch and Holbein stitch, which is also known as a double running stitch.

In addition to these, other embroidery stitches are often added to blackwork, including surface stitches (like stem stitch or couching) or other counted stitches (like cross-stitch).

When blackwork is meant to be viewed from both sides of the fabric (for example, as an accent on clothing, as is often seen in 17th century portraiture), the Holbein stitch is the stitch of choice, because it looks the same on the front and the back of the fabric.

When only the front of the embroidery is viewed (for example, in decorative pieces that will be framed), the backstitch can be substituted for Holbein stitch without a noticeable difference.

Blackwork embroidery in blue thread - band sample

Patterns for blackwork embroidery

Blackwork embroidery patterns are often charted on a grid, just like cross-stitch. When they are, they're very easy to follow and they're perfect for stitchers just beginning to explore the possibilities of blackwork.

However, when the dominant use of blackwork in a design is for filling purposes, a grid is not absolutely necessary. Once the stitcher understands the sequence of the filling pattern, it's just a matter of applying that sequence repeatedly in the area to be filled. So it's not unusual to find blackwork designs that aren't completely gridded.

Instead, these designs are presented with outlines for the major elements in the design, and then the designer indicates what type of filling pattern to work in each particular area. The rest is up to the stitcher!

This can make blackwork challenging, while at the same time giving the stitcher scope for interpretation. If you don't like a particular filling pattern, change a few stitch sequences, and you'll end up with a whole different filling!

An example of blackwork embroidery enhanced with goldwork and beads by Jen Goodwin Image via Jen Goodwin Embroidery

Blackwork in combination with other embroidery techniques

One of the most exciting uses of blackwork is when it is effectively combined with other embroidery techniques.

Designers today, like Jen Goodwin in the UK, find myriad uses for the geometric filling patterns typical of counted blackwork in mixed designs that feature goldwork, beadwork and other types of stitchery.

Because blackwork is perfectly adaptable for filling large areas, it works terrifically for adding texture, color and depth to surface embroidery techniques of all types.

Modern shaded blackwork

Perhaps the most artistic use of blackwork today can be seen in shaded blackwork, where blackwork filling patterns and the weight of threads are adjusted to provide realistic degrees of shading, resulting in exquisite, realistic images of animals, people and scenes.

Two websites worth visiting to see examples of shaded blackwork are Berlin Embroidery Designs and Maria del Valle's blog, AlarTTex.

Tanja Berlin, an embroidery designer located in Canada, has designed this incredible life-like image of an elephant worked entirely in shaded blackwork.

Maria del Valle, an embroiderer in Spain, created this beautiful portrait of an angel, inspired by Da Vinci, entirely worked in shaded blackwork.

Both pieces serve as superb examples of shaded blackwork fillings that produce realistic, portrait-like embroidery.

What about you?

Have you tried blackwork embroidery yet? What's your favorite approach to employing blackwork techniques in your embroidery projects? Do you have a favorite blackwork designer whose patterns you like to stitch? Feel free to join in the discussion on blackwork embroidery below!

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Beginner’s Guide to Beautiful Hand Embroidery

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One Comment

kbsalazar

One thing I’ve found helpful in double running stitch when using just one or two plies of a multi-ply floss (or a plain sewing thread), is to use a ball point needle sold for hand-stitching knits instead of a standard tapestry needle. Ball points have much smaller eyes than do tapestry needles, and make retaining and handling the thread a bit easier.

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