HNW - Styles of Blackwork

Sarah Randles s-randles at
Thu May 20 22:42:03 PDT 1999

Hi all,

The blackwork discussion has brought me briefly out of hiding (the thesis
is due in on 16 July, but I doubt I'll make it) to try and clear up some of
the issues:

There seems to be a great deal of confusion on the subject of what
blackwork does and does not entail - not surprising considering that most
of the books on the subject are pretty vague about their definitions, and
so far none of them have stated what seems to me to be the obvious: *There
are (at least) three distinct styles of embroidery which are called
blackwork (or to use the Elizabethan term, 'Spanish Work').  They are, in
roughly chronological order (but allowing that there are significant

1.  Double running stitch, often called Holbein stitch.  Used most
frequently for colars and cuffs, sometimes for breast-bands and and other
bands on German costume.  This stitch is a counted thread form (although
the counting is often not exact), and can be executed as a reversible

2.  The style sometimes called Geometric Fill.  This is a combination of
non-counted, free form outlines, as described by Chris, sometimes (but not
always) filled with geometric patterns.  The geometric patterns are usually
executed in running stitch, often in multiple directions and multiple
passes.  A note, though, sometimes these regular repeats are actually not
counted, but can be tiny free-form motifs outlined in double-running or
back stitch (there's an example of tiny snails) that I particularly like.
The outlines are executed in a range of outline stitching including stem,
chain and the diabolical plaited braid stitch.  (I haven't seen an example
that I'm sure is split stitch, but it's very hard to tell.) This style of
embroidery is mostly monochrome, but particularly as it develops, there is
a tendency to use gold and silver threads for highlights.

3.  Sometimes called speckle-stitch blackwork, an entirely free-form
variety, heavily influenced, at least in England, by the printed emblem
books, and which seeks to emulate the shading of the woodcut, by using tiny
stitches close together or further apart to suggest darker or lighter
shading.  (e.g. Shepherd Buss, Falkland Jacket) There's a bit of a furphy
about this one, since I've read the argument that it was done with a light
colour and dark coloured thread twisted together, but the only example I've
seen of that is post 1600.

>> surviving books such as "the skoole book of the needle" approx 1640 which
>> also includes patterns for this style of embroidery.

Richard Shorleyker, _The Schoolhouse for the Needle_ was available in many
reprints in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - all of which are
different, and which contain a variety of different sorts of patterns.  The
point about this, and most period pattern books, is that they do not
prescribe the sort of embroidery they can be used for - and indeed there
are numerous examples of surviving patterns which have been worked in
different ways (see Margaret Abegg, Apropos Patterns).  The patterns I
think Chris is talking about, which have been reproduced in Staniland,
could indeed have been used as just outlines, like a shirt in the Museum of
Bath (?), but they could equally have been used with geometric infills.
It's unlikely that they would have been used with speckle stitch since they
are not particularly naturalistic and the forms for that style do tend to

>> Free style black was much more common in period than the geometric counted
>> style which we call black work today.

I don't think I'd agree with that - it depends very much on whom you're
reading, and also whether you're taking an anglocentric point of view.
And, of course, how you define blackwork.

Sorry this is all just off the top of my head, and I don't have the books
with me to cite particular examples.  I do, however, intend to write
something about this (After I've finished my thesis), and try to clear up
some of the confusion.  I suspect that there's a definate time-line and map
to be drawn, but the theory needs some testing.  It's probably worth
remembering for the time being that textile terminology is some of the most
slippery of all subject areas, particularly in the Middle Ages and
Renaissance, and that you shouldn't believe everything you read!

Back to the fourteenth century,


Sarah Randles                                    email: s-randles at
School of English                              phone: 02 6268 8842
University College ADFA                 fax:   02 6268 8899
Canberra ACT 2601

Note: on Mondays and Tuesdays I work at the Australian National Dictionary
Centre - phone: (02) 6249 0476.

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