The art of Blackwork, a simple yet challenging counted thread embroidery, was widely practiced in the Elizabethan era. Because print fabrics were essentially unknown, ladies ornamented clothing and household items with stitchery. Although many different types of embroidery were used, Blackwork has come to be considered particularly evocative of the Tudor/Elizabethan era. One of the primary reasons for this is the splendid portraits painted by Hans Holbein. His attention to detail extended to the patterns embroidered on the clothing of his clients. Today, the stitching technique used in most blackwork is called the Holbein Stitch in his honor.
Ladies wore full sleeves embroidered with plants and animals. To protect the delicate stitchery, sometimes sheer fabric outer sleeves were worn. Blackwork embroidery was not limited to the garments of the fairer sex. Many portraits of the men feature richly decorated shirts and collars. It was not uncommon to receive callers from one's bed...giving the host a chance to show off exquisitely worked night shirts and caps. Ruffs and cuffs were also embroidered with this technique.
There are two main forms of blackwork. One is a design formed of the stitches themselves, as I have done in this Dream Pillow Sachet. The other is to create an outlined design of a heavier stitch and fill it with various Blackwork patterns. Samples of these types of Blackwork are shown on the next pages.
Blackwork is a bit of a misnomer, as the patterns were worked in other colors, most often red (Scarletwork) and white (Whitework). Another technique known as Spanishwork is also grouped in with these period counted stitches. There is some debate as to whether Spanishwork was an interchangeable term with blackwork or if itself was a distinctive technique. I feel Spanishwork was a form of another technique known as Strapwork, in which parallel rows of thread are laid across the top of the fabric, picking up a single thread here and there to create a sort of reverse pattern. This is distinctively different not only in technique but in result, producing only geometric patterns as opposed to the plant and animal motifs so popular in Blackwork. I believe this type of embroidery was inspired by Moorish needlework. If it went first to Spain and then travelled to other European nations it would explain the name. Since the Spanish and the Moors had a long history of both conflict and trade, the opportunity to observe and acquire this craft was undeniably present.