HNW - but is it blackwork?

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Tue Jul 27 00:29:04 PDT 1999

Kayta wrote:
>I am currently doing a piece of cross stitch on aida cloth, black geometric
>patterns on the white cloth.  People keep asking me if it's blackwork, and
>I don't know what to tell them.  Blackwork, to my mind, is that Elizabethan
>stuff with the counted thread patterns filling in leaf and flower and
>shapes (with the occasional pea pod and bug thrown in).  What I am doing is
>for a German Ren. shirt yoke panel.  I don't think of what I am doing as
>blackwork, tho mine is entirely black stitching on white.  So am I really
>doing blackwork or not?

The problem with the term 'blackwork' is that it's rarely well defined -
and not in any of the popular blackwork books.  There are essentially three
forms of needlework which can have this label; the first is the double
running stitch geometric, linear patterns used frequently for collars and
cuffs, but also other things like breast and sleeve bands.  It is at least
as commonly German as it is English, and is frequently known as 'Holbein
Stitch' because it appears in many of Holbein's portraits.  I haven't found
a period term for it yet, but I am looking.  It may come under the heading
of 'Spanish work' but its very hard to tell (a general problem with textile
terms is that they are very hard to pin down because it's so rare that we
can be sure that we have the right piece for the description).

It seems to me that the embroidery you are doing doesn't fall into this
category, since it is not linear, and not double running stitch.  Black on
white is not a defining characteristic of blackwork, since as Andrew and
others have pointed out, it may be executed in other colours.  However, the
patterns in books which could be used for Holbein Stitch could also be used
(and were) for other techniques such as cross stitch.

The second form of blackwork is the outlined and filled in sort - the type
you correctly associate with Elizabethan costume.  While the outlines are
free form, the fillings are, like the Holbein stitch, a form of counted
thread work.  I suspect that this is what Elizabethans meant when they
talked about 'Spanish work' but it's hard to prove, and I'd like to do more
research before stating this any more strongly.

Somewhere between Holbein stitch and the geometric filling forms is the
sort which is just an outline - usually very simply double running or back
stitch, but not a counted thread form.

The third major form of blackwork is that sometimes called 'speckling
stitch', which was closely based on the woodcut emblems found in emblem
books.  The embroidery itself closely follows the form of the emblems.
This is also executed in simple running stitches, but again these are not

The Katherine of Aragon thing is a furphy.  There is no evidence to suggest
that she actually brought any of the blackwork techniques to England with
her, and some evidence (the oft quoted Chaucer thing in Gostelow) to
suggest that blackwork may have already been prevalent in England.  I also
haven't found any evidence of blackwork in Spain any earlier than in
England, although I admit that I haven't looked at much Spanish material.

So, is your cross-stitch blackwork?  I would say not.  The one common
characteristic of the 3 (and a half) techniques which are commonly called
blackwork is that they are made up of simple running stitches.  This is
arguable in the case of the geometric infil variety, where stitches do
indeed cross over each other, but it seems that in most cases this is
achieved by stitching a pass or several passes of running stitches all in
one direction, and then later passes crossing them in different directions.
 The tendency in the few pieces of sixteenth century cross stitch I have
been able to examine is to form each cross individually, and in any case
there is a shift in direction between stitches if you use the tent stitch
method.  (i.e. your stitches are in parallel rather than continuous
lines.)Cross stitch is however, appropriate for the sort of garment and
time you describe.


Go to to perform mailing list tasks.

More information about the H-needlework mailing list