HNW - Longevity of Blackwork

Kim Salazar kbsalazar at
Fri Aug 18 06:59:07 PDT 2000


I heartily second Liadain's assertion on the durability of blackwork.

I stitched a blackwork front for an underdress in five months, starting in 
October '77 and finishing in April '78.  I did it in a mix of linen and 
cotton thread on a linen blend ground.  Think big scrolling fruits and 
flowers, and a zillion filling patterns.  For the SCAthains here - it 
started out intended to be a tablecloth, but Fernando won the crown, so it 
ended up being part of a coronation dress. [grin]

Not only do I still have it, it has outlasted three dresses, one very 
hungry horse, a smoky apartment fire, and innumerable aggressive 
launderings.  It is now firmly settled in Dress #4, and looks to outlast 
that one too.

Of course, I have made other things that have abraded away to nothing.  I 
recently re-stitched my part of the Carolingian Ladies' Favor - done on the 
count on a muslin-count cotton backing with cotton sewing thread.  Since 
that piece was done, circa 1979, my section had rubbed out to nothing, 
probably because it was in the section that received heavy abrasion from 
the wearers' belts.  However the favor I made for Don Fernando's dated AS. 
IX (1975 - blackwork, linen and cotton on linen, edged with needle lace in 
linen, backed with silk velvet) still exists, and sports its stitching 


Here are some things that help a stitched piece hold up.  These hints are 
intuitively obvious, so I apologize if I am restating things we all know.

1.  Matching the washability of the threads used to the ground cloth, and 
to the intended use.  If the cloth is very sturdy, and you intend to wash 
the garment often (as with body linen) use something that can be treated in 
the same manner.  Many silks are surprisingly washable to those of us 
brought up with the silk/dry cleaning mantra.  Some are not.  Linens and 
cottons tend to wash better, but beware!  Horrific shrinkage, color 
migration, and shredding are not unknown in ANY fiber.  Testing out an 
embroidered swatch is HIGHLY recommended - even if you are using one of the 
"name brand" threads.  If you do a small piece as a washing-swatch and it 
survives, it can always be mounted into a small sweet bag or similar 
item.  If not, well it was better to find out before you completed eight 
yards of edging for a new shift...

2.  Shorter stitch lengths tend to last longer.  A beauty of this 
particular counted style is that even long straight visual lines are made 
up of lots of uniform smaller units.  This minimizes catching and 
abrading.  For long-lived pieces, please don't be tempted to take one 
stitch to cover the length equivalent of three smaller ones.

3.  Keep even tension along the lines of stitching.  I think that blackwork 
gets a length-of-life assist because much of it is done with all of the 
tension balanced both above and below the ground fabric, and with that 
tension spread longitudinally along the stitched lines themselves.  While I 
have seen pieces pucker from too-tight stitching, from insufficient tension 
on the frame while working, or from the stitching threads shrinking 
disproportionately to the ground fabric after washing (the stitching begins 
to look a little like smocking) I haven't seen a band-style blackwork piece 
distort the ground cloth otherwise.  I have seen areas of the infillings 
done in inhabited style blackwork distort, but mostly because the stitcher 
chose to work those particular fillings were worked with very different 
appearances on the front and back.

4.  On clothing, place stitching on areas less likely to suffer abuse, or 
do the stitching on a replaceable unit.  (This is the most obvious of 
all).  For example, detachable sleeves are a nifty idea that make greater 
sense when you consider that one's most elegant stitching may not be 
suitable every time an outfit is worn.

So I encourage everyone to stitch away, whether the item being worked is 
for display or for wearing.  With only a small bit of luck, some time from 
from now you will still be able to look on your completed pieces - perhaps 
a decade or two older but still smiling back at you.

ianthe at

Kim Salazar
kbsalazar at

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