Saturday, August 23, 2014

History on Blackwork Embroidery

            A member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Gregor Burcardus, once described blackwork embroidery as “a stark beauty of black running along an edge or overwhelming a field of white”.  “Blackwork…has sometimes been called ‘Spanish work’.  And the conception of blackwork is often erroneously attributed to that celebrated sixteenth century Spanish lady, Catherine of Aragon.” (Gostelow 9)  The technique of blackwork embroidery became extremely popular in England when it was displayed by King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

In 1501, Catherine had brought this technique with her to England from her native country, Spain.  In Spain, Catherine was born to the new Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand.  Before their reign, the Moors had ruled much of the Spanish territory.  Even after being evicted from Spain, many of the Moorish geometrical designs had been left behind.  Having grown up learning the geometric embroidery, she continued her embroidery when she was sent to England to marry Henry VIII’s older brother, Arthur.  After Arthur’s death, Catherine then married Henry in 1509.  “The theory that the vogue came into England with Catherine of Aragon is no longer tenable, for references to such black embroidery occur at a much earlier date, in the late 15th century…” (Kendrick 53)  In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer commented on the clothing of the miller’s wife, Alison.  “Of white, too, was the dainty smock she wore, Embroidered at the collar all about With coal-black silk, alike within and out.”  (Chaucer 105) 

            “…it is the embroidery in black silk on white linen which became fashionable during the reign of Henry VIII…and dying out some time between 1600 and 1630.” (Geddes and McNeill 13)  When Catherine of Aragon brought this fashionable embroidery technique to England, it was referred to as “Spanysshe work”.  It was dubbed this name, though it had shown origins with Moorish design elements.  After King Henry VIII divorced Catherine in 1533, the embroidery was re-named ‘blackwork’.  By the time King Henry VIII’s second daughter, Elizabeth I, came into reign, blackwork embroidery was popular among both nobility and monarchs. 

Shirts were the most common to have blackwork as decoration, especially on the cuffs and around the neck.  “As blackwork embroidery patterns resemble lace (which was difficult to obtain in Tudor days, because of a tax on lace) collars and cuffs of blackwork embroidery soon appeared on the courtiers’ clothing.” (Drysdale 10)  There are many portraits from the Elizabethan time era of nobility wearing blackwork on the sleeves and cuffs of their shirts and chemises.  By 1530, a man’s shirt had a high neck, which had resulted in the origin of the ruff.  Blackwork was used to decorate this ruff. (Cunnington 17)  In the National Portrait Gallery, there is a portrait of Henry VIII wearing a shirt embroidered with acorns in gold and leaves in black.  “Apart from ruffs, blackwork was highly fashionable on falling-bands, hand-ruffs, handkerchiefs, night-caps, and night-shirts.” (Geddes and McNeill 34)

            Blackwork embroidery was also popular in other countries besides England, such as France.  “Louis XI and Charles VIII of France were both very interested in embroidery and summoned Italian embroiderers to court, so early French work was much influenced by Italy.” (Snook 13)  Blackwork had already made its appearance in French and German portraits at the beginning of the sixteenth century, proving that it was already a general European fashion.  “Blackwork, if it was used in Scotland, has not survived except in portraits, such as that of Agnes Keith and her husband, the Regent Moray, painted by Hans Eworth, 1561.”  (Swain 11)  Found among the garments left by Mary Queen of Scots were four English chemises with blackwork designs. 

In other historical findings, the blackwork design “…occurs on a fragment from a burial ground in Egypt of the late medieval period, and is depicted by Holbein the elder in his paintings…” (Swain 121)  Spain and Italy set the way by using Islamic design, as well as absorbing design ideas from Egypt.  “Types of counted-thread embroidery in black on white are found in many countries, especially the Slavonic countries of Eastern Europe:  Russia, Roumania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, where it has been a peasant industry for centuries.”  (Geddes and McNeill 14)

            Blackwork could have been found on almost any type of fabric:  silk, linen, satin, velvet, and netting.  Wool may have been used for threading, but black silk was definitely the most favored.  Once in a while, gold and silver threads may have been used to demonstrate visual drama.  Other colors of thread were used too, but black silk on a white background was the most popular.  “Fine black silk embroidery on white linen…Intricate geometrical designs worked in double running…” (Swain 119)  In addition, pearls and beads may have been used sporadically.  “It has also been suggested that the lavish use of black thread embroidery was occasioned by the influence of the newly-established printing presses.  Many of the embroidery designs were close copies of those which were inspired by engravings and woodcuts.”  (Jones 32)

            The technique used to create blackwork is quite simple.  Known as ‘back stitch’ or ‘festoon stitch’, lines of joined links of chains form together to create an endless picture. (Gostelow 87)  By counting the threads, the double-running stitch is a series of two ‘journeys’.  On the first journey, the pattern is to work every other stitch.  Then on the return journey, fill in the blank spots to create one continuous line.  “In blackwork, the spaces are filled with delicately etched geometrical lines.”  (Swain 11)  This double running stitch has also sometimes been referred to as ‘Holbein stitch’.

            There are many different designs used with the blackwork technique.  During Elizabeth I’s reign, many floral designs had been used.  William Shakespeare even described some of these decorations in his works.  In Pericles, Act V, Sc. I, I.5 Shakespeare wrote:

…with her neeld composes

Nature’s own shape of bud, bird, branch, or berry,

That even her art sisters the natural roses;

Her inkle, silk, twin wit the rubied cherry:

That pupils lacks she none of noble race

Who pour their bounty on her…

(Kendrick 93)

            Graph paper is usually helpful when graphing a blackwork design.  Stitches can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal to create a geometrical effect.  The ending result should be reversible and look the same from both the front and back sides.  Even weave fabric is the easiest and most favorable to do embroidery on.  It is also recommended that only a single thread be used, but two threads can also be used. 

Works Cited

Ashelford, Jane.  The Art of Dress:  Clothes and Society 1500-1914.  New York:  Harry N. Abrams, Inc.  1996. 

Chaucer, Geoffrey.  The Canterbury Tales.  Ed. John Halverson.  New York:  Bobbs-Merrill.  1971. 

Cunnington, C.W. and P.  Handbook of English Costume in the 16th Century.  London:  Faber and Faber Limited.  1962. 

Drysdale, Rosemary.  The Art of Blackwork Embroidery.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.  1975

Geddes, Elisabeth, and Moyra McNeill.  Blackwork Embroidery.  Boston:  Charles T. Branford.  1965. 

Gostelow, Mary.  Blackwork.  New York:  Van Nostrand.  1976. 

Jones, Mary Eirwen.  A History of Western Embroidery.  New York:  Watson-Guptill Publications.  1969.   

Kendrick, A.F.  English Needle-Work.  Ed. Patricia Wardle.  London:  Adam and Charles Black.  1967. 

Scheuer, Nikki.  Designs for Holbein Embroidery.  New York:  Doubleday.  1976. 

Snook, Barbara.  The Creative Art of Embroidery.  London:  Hamlyn Publishing. 1972.  

Swain, Margaret H.  Historical Needlework:  A Study of Influences in Scotland and Northern England.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons.  1970. 

Swain, Margaret.  The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots.  New York:  Von Nostrand.  1973.

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