Costume Society, News  |  April 9, 2014

Blackwork embroidery

This week we have committee member Fiona Starkey sharing her beautiful embroidery work.

Following a recent project for the West of England Costume Society, I found myself teaching some complete beginners blackwork and goldwork. Now for goldwork, it really helps to be shown, but blackwork’s pretty straightforward if you’d like to have a go.

Instructions to try some yourself follow, but first, a bit of historical context: Blackwork was popular for a lot of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth centuries and is the general term to cover monochromatic embroidery, usually on collars, cuffs and often sleeves of linen smocks (shirts, chemises, or whatever else you’d like to call the all purpose underwear garment of the period). It could also be done in reds and occasionally other colours offering good contrast, but predominantly black.

The patterns are usually repeats and though the outline designs may be freehand, the filler patterns and the regular borders are almost always worked over a regular thread count. Stitch length on any I’ve seen close up appears to be one stitch over two woven threads, occasionally longer. Remember these embroideries were done to be worn, not just looked at and you don’t want loose lengths of thread catching on things.

It was worn by both sexes and all ages, but only the upper classes had the time to do it themselves or the money to pay somebody else. Look at any of the portraits of the period and you’ll spot it peeking out from the edges of the outer layers, hinting at hidden wealth. It was so ubiquitous in Holbein’s portraits that there is a stitch named after him - it’s the version of running stitch which retraces the line you’ve worked to look the same front and back of the linen - particularly effective at cuffs. Bronzino’s portrait of the Lady in Green (1528 in the Royal Collection) has a nice example at neck and front (photograph 1). His portrait of Eleanora of Toledo shows the turned cuff with identical cross stitch pattern inside and out (photograph 4). 

These modern reproductions (photograph 3) have been based on examples from Bronzino’s Eleanora(photograph 5),  Holbein’s portrait of a gentleman and an extant example in Bath Fashion Museum from 1580. 

Larger, more elaborate embroidery is stitched stretched flat on a frame, but these smaller more intimate pieces are simpler on a ring frame, or even hand held. They would have originally been stitched with linen or silk thread for the finest work. Decent quality linen thread is hard to get hold of these days and it’s easiest to use a stranded cotton. This also gives quite a lot of control over the density of the pattern.

Tune in on Friday for some practical instruction from Fiona (and it will give you some time to find your needle and thread!).

  • 1.Bronzino 'Lady in Green' Photographer: Fiona Starkey
  • Fashion Museum 1580, Blackwork cuff1 FES Photographer: Fiona Starkey
  • 3.Blackwork cuffs FES NLM Photographer: Fiona Starkey
  • 4..Cuff Detail 'Bronzino' Photographer: Fiona Starkey
  • 5.Cuff Detail 'Eleanora' Photographer: Fiona Starkey