HNW - Blackwork 101

Kim Salazar kbsalazar at
Thu Aug 17 08:04:22 PDT 2000


Julia asked about blackwork learning tips.  Not having gone to Pennsic, 
(and trying to avoid a nasty work-related chore) I attempt to answer with a 
discussion of how to identify the logic behind a blackwork 
pattern.  Apologies for length and any possible confusion I may cause.

A complex pattern in double running stitch (by any of its names) can look 
daunting, but most band-style blackwork patterns can be reduced to simple 
logic.  However, not everyone is comfortable with charts, and some people 
have problems seeing the logic, or in following a chart at all.

The learning method I am describing is one I have found to work for people 
who are "Chart Anxious."  Everyone learns differently.  Talent for using 
charts is not universal, but can be learned by most.  (I hate to see people 
limit themselves from doing blackwork because they are daunted by all the 
charts.)  Please feel free to try this method (or parts of it) - I make no 
claim that it is the "correct" way, or the only way to learn - it's just 
one that I have found has worked for some people who were frustrated using 
other methods.

The quickest way to learn the logic is to start by looking at a bunch of 
the band-style patterns.  The Skinner site has a nice selection, and if I 
may be immodest - if you can lay hands on a copy of my book, there are 
several in there too.  [grin]

If I may presume to use the Skinner Sisters site for illustration, here goes...

First look for a pattern that is formed from one continuous line, with no 
looping or  branching "detours."  Many of these are quite early, and 
feature lots of zig-zag lines that look like steps, augmented with acorns, 
little crosses, quatrefoils, or other simple ornament.  (The famous Jane's 
cuffs are of this type.)  You can see patterns like this on the Skinner 
Sister's project pages - especially on the project entitled "Blackwork for 
the Bewildered":

The same sort of patterns are on Plate 48, item 2; and Plate 51, items 2 
and 3 in "The New Carolingian Modelbook" (details of book at end of note).

While there is no substitute for actually stitching, and I certainly am not 
advocating that you abscond with the design of the Skinner sampler (which 
looks to be an excellent learning tool for anyone starting out in 
Blackwork) you might like to "try out" the logic of similar early patterns 
on Plain Old Paper.

If you are Extremely Chart Anxious - I'd suggest that you photocopy one of 
this type of pattern from a good source (I've used patterns from my 
book).  Then taking TWO thin markers of additive color (yellow and red to 
make orange, or yellow and blue to make green) - you trace along the lines 
of the pattern.  The idea is to go "there and back again" - tracing the 
journey out with the lighter color, and the journey back with the darker 
color.  When all the lines of your paper pattern are orange or green - you 
will have mastered the logic of that design.  (You could do the same thing 
by eyeball rather than with a marking pen if you are less Chart Anxious.)

Note that there is a major fallacy in this modeling system.  Unlike 
stitching, the pen never runs out of thread - so you'll have to arbitrarily 
decide when you have gone far enough and need to return. [grin]

For these early patterns, following the logic is quite easy.  Follow the 
"steps" up and then on the second pass - back down.

Next, try one of the slightly more complex patterns - one that features a 
minor amount of branching.  I'd suggest the Quentel/Schonsperger birds 
illustrated on the Skinner project "Spaniche Stiche Sampler" and also on 
Plate 46 item 3 in TNCM.

Start at the baseline along the feet, then trace up the legs to the bird 
body.  When you get to a "detour point" (like the lines that mark the tail 
feathers) follow the new path to its end.  Then switch to the other color 
pen and trace back to the "main line."  Switch back to your first color 
when you rejoin the baseline, and continue on to the next 
detour.  Eventually you will have travelled the length of the pattern.  All 
of the detours will be orange or green, and you will have a single baseline 
of yellow running the length of your pattern.  Turning back to complete 
that baseline will complete the design.

Unless there is a part of the pattern detached from the rest of stitching, 
sitting isolated like an island - ALL double running stitch patterns follow 
this logic.  All - even the most impossibly complex - can be reduced to one 
or two baselines with branching detours.  (I haven't run into any that 
feature more than two baselines, but that doesn't mean there aren't 
any.  In fact I am now tempted to draft one up... [grin])

If you look again at the Skinner site, you will see an example of a pattern 
that features both intermediate branching AND isolated "islands" in the 
left hand edge - "Leon From 100 Blackwork Charts".  The little flowers are 
isolated from the baseline.  If I intended my work to be reversible, I 
would work them with a separate thread (thus leaving no big and visible 
"jumps" on the back).  The big knotted quatrefoil can be thought of as a 
single small baseline that runs in a circle around the inner edge where the 
four knot shapes meet, plus detours that fill out the rest of the pattern.

If you look at the slightly more difficult patterns on this sample page 
from TNCM:

you will see that the baseline is easy to identify in Pattern 3 - it is the 
vine from which the flowers and buds grow.  In Pattern 4, I'd use one of 
the long straight edges as my baseline, working the little "jewel" inserts 
one by one as my detours.  Even the huge grape repeat on that page yields 
to this method.

While each 4-bunch grape unit is an island in and of itself, it can be 
worked from a baseline.  When I did this one, I ran my baseline around the 
outermost edge of the leaves and connected stem, working the grapes and 
veins as my detours Note that this pattern does feature an exception to the 
baseline rule - the veins in the center of the squashed smaller flattened 
leaves are NOT connected to the edge, and must either be worked with a 
separate thread, or the stitcher needs to "fudge" a connection.

Hope this helps,

ianthe at

Kim Salazar
kbsalazar at

ps:  I've got no affiliation with the Skinner Sisters site or with Lynn, 
other than deep admiration for the quality of their work and ability to 
bring it to so many people in such detail.

pps:  Shameless plug:  Kim Brody Salazar.  "The New Carolingian 
Modelbook:  Counted Embroidery Patterns from Before 
1600."  Albuquerque:  Outlaw Press, 1995. 205 pages.  ISBN: 
0-9642082-2-9.  Still cropping up here and there, but getting VERY hard to 

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