You don’t have to be a Renaissance Faire kinda gal to be inspired by the Elizabethan era. If you were royal (or had a royal income) you could decorate yourself into a monument of embellishment! Let your handmaiden do all the drudgery first (hand-sewing miles of seams), and you are free to put your feet up (on an embellished cushion) and put your gorgeous silks to work.
Blackwork is simple embroidered stitches originally used to decorate sleeves, necklines, bodices, etc. It utilizes the cross-weave of the fabric itself, the threads being counted to keep the placement of the stitches even. Anything you can design on a grid can work for blackwork. Unlike the familiar counted cross stitch, the goal is not to create solid areas of pictures composed of pixels (one cross). Instead, you use openwork patterns to decorate areas of your motif, or as an all-over meshy look. For clothing, blackwork makes sense, since the stitching is not so dense as to cause stiffness or excess weight.
Why BLACKwork? At first, it seems this method did employ a single color, usually black. I found this surprising, since black is a difficult dye to keep stable. Red was notoriously difficult to keep from looking faded as well, but soon, deep red was a popular choice. These days the “rules” have relaxed completely, with more than one color being popular. I love the look of variegated threads in blackwork too. There are new patterns that use color very strategically, enhancing the effect as a whole, especially in geometric designs. Since you’re working with a grid, there is huge potential for geometry, as well as angular designs in black, like wrought iron or Celtic motifs.
Six-strand embroidery floss works well; use the same number of strands that approximates the thickness of one thread of your fabric. You can use Aida cloth, evenweave embroidery fabric (Wilchelt Jobelan, for example), or linen. If you’re a beginner, stitck with 14 count Aida; you can identify and count your holes much more easily. (When counting evenweave, count the threads, not the holes.)
Another thing that sets blackwork apart is the subject matter. It’s similar to the motifs you find in Jacobean crewelwork: pomegranates, artichokes, paisley-like flowers, thistles, hearts, and Celtic-style knots and weaving. Many of these had significance beyond their aesthetic beauty, as did herbs and flowers. Pineapples were so rare and expensive that they symbolized hospitality; if you would offer your guests something so precious and share it with them, you were awesome hosts! They also appear at doorways, and as finials where they could be seen immediately. (I digress. The nerdy part of the brain is taking over. Hold on… okay. I’m back)
This example is a border. The artichoke is upside-down in every other repeat, so that there is no “wrong” way up. This type of pattern was commonly used on table runners, bed linens, and bed hangings. The details of the motifs were often worked with metallic gold or silver thread, if you had the money. Today, it is still common to use “blending filaments” with all colors of metallic fibers along with the main thread to jazz up the details.
So, what do you need to get started? Fabric, at least two to four inches larger in height and width than the design you choose; smaller projects would require a smaller margin. (Designs are often measured by the number of stitches the design has at the widest and tallest parts. This makes sense, since the gauge of the fabric you choose will determine the size of your finished design. If in doubt, always have more fabric than you think you’ll need. You can use the scraps for bookmarks, etc.)
You can use the ubiquitous DMC embroidery floss, or the heavier, rope-like perle cotton (you don’t separate this one into strands; use it whole), linen thread (wait until you’re experienced with linen and metallics. They can shred if not handled correctly.) The size and shape of your needle is actually very important. You need a blunt tapestry needle, because with evenweave and Aida, you’re sliding the needle between the threads of the fabric, NOT piercing them. The size of the shaft of the needle should be just big enough to slide through the fabric. Don’t use one so big that it forces the threads to bend out of the way. This will distort your fabric. Conversely, a too-small needle will make a space in the fabric that isn’t quite large enough for the floss to slide through without abrasion. If you’ve ever had your floss shredding and breaking after only a few stitches, that was probably the reason.
Lastly, there’s the question of whether you need to use an embroidery hoop or not. For the two designs you see here, the pea pods and the airy braid, you may not need one. Why is that? Well, if you analyze them you’ll see that they’re open and airy compared to an all-over design of small stitches. There is much less chance of the fabric being distorted, since there will be less stitching in the final product. For denser designs on loosely-woven fabric, go with a hoop. I recommend only one brand: Hardwicke Manor. They’re a German company, and the hoops are not cheap. (cheap “wooden” hoops are rough on hands and fabric, and run about $3-$10.) The Hardwicke Manor brands are hardwood, sanded smooth, and available in various depths, up to 1″ wide. But they are heirloom-quality and wonderful to work with. Smooth maple, with heavy-duty brass hardware (a real screw you can tighten with a screwdriver!). I wrapped the inside hoops with bias tape to protect the fabric. They run between $7 and $20. (For another blog! Lots more on hoops…)
Here’s a cool fact about blackwork!…. It’s usually reversible!! A fantastic advantage on things like scarves, curtains, napkins. The nature of the stitches used (Holbein/double-running stitch, backstitch) makes them the same on both sides!
Most of my books on this art are not exactly new, but there are a few designers stretching the boundaries these days. The charts I’ve shared here are by Elizabeth Almond, who generously posted them online free of charge. Her more detailed designs are incredible. Some are very M.C. Escher, complete with perspective and three-dimensional effects. I have also seen stars and flowers that are filled with various stitches.
In closing, I encourage you to try this type of embroidery if you’re a history buff (look up the ladies of Elizabeth R’s court; their dresses are covered with embroidery), or if you’re rather impatient. Cross-stitch on 32 count linen with one strand of DMC can take forever; one strand of perle cotton and an open blackwork design can take a couple of evenings, making it a last-minute gift idea. Or grab your detachable sleeves and stitch on your way to the Faire!
“The New Cross Stitcher’s Bible” by Jane Greenoff
Elizabeth Almond’s website, “Blackwork Journey”