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Blackwork is a form of embroidery which involves the use of black thread on a white background fabric. Although black was the most popular colour, there are similar monochromatic embroideries that use other colours, including red, blue and purple.


Blackwork became popular in England during the reign of Henry VIII, and the style is often called Spanish work.

The portrait painter Hans Holbein the Younger became court painter to Henry VIII, and he painted Henry's queens wearing dresses richly decorated with blackwork. The double-running stitch employed in Blackwork is often called Holbein stitch.

During its most popular period of usage, three distinct styles of blackwork emerge, all of which co-existed together.

Design Features

  • Linear, Reversable Blackwork - This is the type of work that most people associate with blackwork. It is a usually a counted thread design (though this is not always the case), which is reversable, that is, it looks the same from the front and the back. This style tends to be linear in nature and was mostly used on collars and cuffs of clothing. Its popularity can be attested to by the fact that some form of blackwork can be seen in many Tudor and Elizabethan portraits. One painter, Hans Holbein, detailed it so well that the stitch used to make this style of blackwork took on his name - Holbein Stitch. This type of blackwork can be done in either double running or back stitch.
  • Free Form Style with Geometric Fill Patterns - This is second most popular form of blackwork. This type of blackwork consists of free form shapes, (most popularly, flowers and leaves) that are then filled in with repeating geometric fill patterns. This type of blackwork was used extensively in the production of pillow covers and various forms of clothing, such as large sleeves, coifs, nightcaps, smocks, and skirt foreparts.
  • Free Form Outlined Motifs - This type of blackwork comes in two versions.
    • The first is the use of scattered, individual motifs on items such as pillow beeres (cases) and other bed linens. These are usually done using stem or chain stitch.
    • The other form is a repetitive strapwork pattern, again done in stem stitch or chain stitch. Examples can be seen in the portraits of Henry VIII (shirts) and in skirt foreparts.

Materials Used

The most common materials for working blackwork in the 16th Century were black silk thread on a white linen ground. Many such examples survive today.

Stitches and Techniques

  • Holbein stitch or double-running stitch - used mostly for reversable blackwork, used on collars, cuffs and any items where both sides would be visible.
  • Stem stitch - used as an outline stitch when doing free form and geometric blackwork.
  • Braid or plaited stitches - used for making stems or adding texture to free form and geometric blackwork.

Extant Pieces

Links To Further Information

Sources / Further Reading

  • "Blackwork Embroidery Patterns" Jane D. Zimmerman. Self-published 1975
  • Blackwork Embroidery by Elizabeth Geddes & Moyra McNeill. Dover, New York 1974 ISBN 048623245X
  • Blackwork by Mary Gostelow. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York 1976 ISBN 0486401782
  • Art of Blackwork Embroidery by Rosemary Drysdale. Scribner, New York 1975 ISBN 0263059952
  • Blackwork Embroidery: Design and Technique by Margaret Pascoe. Batsford, London, 1986 ISBN 0713451467
  • Elizabethan Embroidery by George Winfield Digby. Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1963 ISBN 0571056466