Basics of Elizabethan Freehand Blackwork Embroidery

"Basics of Elizabethan Freehand Blackwork Embroidery" This article specifically focuses on the styles and basic techniques of freehand blackwork embroidery in the Elizabethan and Tudor eras in England.

Embroidery Detail

Blackwork embroidery is monochromatic embroidery in both counted and freehand forms, but this article specifically focuses on the styles and basic techniques of freehand blackwork embroidery in the Elizabethan and Tudor eras in England. Other colors of thread besides black were used during the 16th and 17th centuries in England, especially red, but black is the most common. Metal threads were also sometimes used alongside the colored floss, as were spangles. In SCA period, blackwork embroidery was created in silk floss, most likely flat silk, but modern stranded cotton floss is easier to learn with and produces a very nice result. It is also more durable and tolerant of modern washing machines.

You do not need to buy specialty evenweave fabric to create beautiful blackwork embroidery. In fact, nothing like it was available in Renaissance England, and the very distinctive appearances of most evenweave fabrics can be distracting and detrimental to creating a period appearance in your finished embroidery. Instead, purchase white linen with a high thread count, at least 30 threads per inch, and try to find a fabric that has a similar count on both warp and weft. This will be close to what was available in period, and will provide a fine ground for your embroidery. Be wary of course fabrics, as your floss can become lost in the weave of the fabric. If you do choose to embroider on a coarse fabric, double the spacing on your pattern so the embroidery floss can float over more of the weave and avoid disappearing into the ground fabric. Try to avoid particularly lightweight fabrics when creating freehand embroidery, or your traveling stitches on the back of the work might be visible from the front.

You will also need an embroidery needle, thimble, embroidery snips, and a hoop or frame to stretch your work.

 

Counted Blackwork Embroidery

Tudor and Elizabethan English counted blackwork was a very different beast from a majority of modern blackwork. It was used almost exclusively as filling stitches, or in bands. There are no shading or graduating techniques used to vary the apparent darkness of the field without changing patterns, or to create variations in shading within a section of embroidery. When a different darkness is desired for a different filling section, a different fill pattern is used. When shading does occur on embroidered figures and vines, it is created with running stitch, buttonhole stitches, and irregular stab stitches, not counted patterns.

Counted blackwork embroidery bands are the only SCA period embroidery I am aware of where the front and back of the work often look the same. This is because it was used to adorn bands of material on clothing, like collars and cuffs, where both sides of the embroidery might be seen. Most filling stitches from the period are impossible to work such that both sides of the embroidery look the same.

Counted blackwork in period is worked almost exclusively in double running stitch, although back stitch may be used if the finished embroidery will only be seen from one side. Before you start stitching, examine the pattern for a path that will allow you to continuously stitch twice over all parts of the pattern without having to travel to a new part of the pattern. This will not be possible with all filling stitches, but should be possible with most band patterns from the period. If your piece will not be seen from both sides when finished, don’t worry about it too much. Contrary to modern perception, blackwork embroidery in the period was almost never the same on the back as the front.

Double Running Stitch Illustration, by Sidney EileenDouble Running Stitch

To create double running stitch, first work your pattern (or part of your pattern) with running stitch. Then come back and work another line of running stitch to fill in the gaps.

There are a great many existing resources for period counted patterns and guides detailing how to create counted blackwork, so instead for this paper I will focus on the freehand blackwork so popular in Elizabethan England.

 

Freehand Blackwork Embroidery

A very large amount of blackwork embroidery, especially from England, was worked freehand. Large design elements were often filled, but never shaded, with counted patterns. There are very limited shading techniques to be found on some extant pieces, only using running stitch, stab stitches, or buttonhole stitch. Patterns usually repeated in a very regular fashion, ranging is size from very large to very small. It was not important for different elements to be proportionate to each other. For example, an owl might be the same size as a strawberry. Patterns also typically repeat true to the edge of the fabric, meaning the designs are often cut off at the edge of a garment piece.

Just about any stitches used for Elizabethan polychromatic embroidery might be used for blackwork embroidery. However, the most common stitches I have observed are stem, chain, and buttonhole or blanket stitch.

There was absolutely no attempt in period to make freehand blackwork embroidery that looked as clean on the inside as the outside. Quite to the contrary, the insides of freehand pieces I’ve found photos of are very messy, with lots of traveling threads everywhere as the embroiderer moved around the piece however it suited. Indeed, the stitches most often used look very different on the back of the work, making it impossible to create a piece that is identical front and back.

In the smock below, you can also see the most common use of counted fill patterns in Elizabethan England. The design is first worked freehand, outlining the entire design. Each enclosed area is then filled throughout with counted patterns. If contrast is desired between adjacent enclosed areas, different fill patterns are used in each area. On the back side of the work even the fill patterns are worked without regard to reversibility or “neatness”.

Smock; V&A Collections, detail of freehand blackwork embroidery with counted fill patterns, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78732/smock-unknown/

Mirroring of a pattern from the left side of a garment to the right is also sometimes seen, but not always. Whether or not you wish to mirror your pattern is entirely up to you. Both are period correct for all styles of blackwork embroidery.

 

Stitches UsedWoman's Coif from 1600, English, Linen with silk and metal thread embroidery, blackwork, Museum of Fine Arts Boston - http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/womans-coif-127863

Just about any stitch used in polychrome Elizabethan embroidery is fair game for freehand blackwork, but the most common stitches used are stab stitch, stem stitch, chain stitch, and buttonhole or blanket stitch. To create a basic freehand blackwork embroidery piece in the Elizabethan style, the only stitch you technically need is stem stitch. All others are optional.

Stab Stitch

Stab stitch is simply a single short stitch over the surface of the embroidery, unattached to any other stitches. It is sometimes used for shading by varying the density of the stitches in an irregular fashion. Stab stitch is not counted. The coif to the right shows the kind of stab stitch shading seen in period pieces. In the examples I have viewed shading is never done with counted work. That is a trait of modern blackwork embroidery.

Stem Stitch Illustration, by Sidney EileenStem Stitch

To make stem stitch, plunge the needle to the back of the fabric one stitch length ahead of the prior stitch, and emerge back to the front of the fabric through the same hole as the prior stitch. When you are done the back of the embroidery should look like back stitch or double running stitch.

Stem stitch is used for outlines and detail lines, and is excellent for making clean turns, be they tight or broad. A shorter stitch length will create a smoother piece of embroidery that is also less prone to snagging, although it can be advantageous to lengthen or shorten the stitch length on particularly tight or broad turns. My stitch length is typically about two or three millimeters in length, although I shorten it to about one millimeter on tight turns (like little spirals), or lengthen it to as much as five millimeters on very broad turns if a shorter stitch will result in an angular appearance.

Chain Stitch Illustration, by Sidney EileenChain Stitch

To make chain stitch, insert the needle through the same hole your thread just emerged from, and emerge one stitch length ahead. Pass the floss underneath the tip of the needle. Pull the thread through in the direction the needle is pointing until the loop is barely snug. When you are done the back of the embroidery should look like back stitch or double running stitch.

Chain stitch is an alternative to stem stitch, and is also used for outlines and detail stitches, though with less frequency than stem stitch. If you are more comfortable with chain stitch, it may be used instead of stem stitch. Chain stitch will create a bolder line than stem stitch.

Blanket Stitch Illustration, by Sidney EileenButtonhole or Blanket Stitch

To create blanket stitch along a straight line, insert the needle one stitch length away from the prior stitch, and one stitch width away from the design line. Emerge on the design line one stitch length away from the prior stitch. Loop the floss underneath the point of the needle. Pull the floss in the direction the needle is pointing until the stitch is barely snug.

When working blanket stitch along a curve, keep the legs perpendicular to the design line. This will require either altering the stitch length or the distances between the shading lines, or possibly both. Which you do is going to depend upon the design and your personal preference. Ideally, try to keep the shading created by the legs visually consistent.

For simplicity sake, in the illustration I have made the stitch length and stitch width the same, but you may want to vary the length and width to suit your design. The upper part of the stitch in the illustration should follow the design line, creating both outline (the line) and shading (the legs) in one pass. Closer legs with create darker shading, and longer legs will create deeper shading.

 

Goldwork and Silverwork

Gold and silver threads are used in Elizabethan blackwork just as they are in Elizabethan polychrome embroidery. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into metal embroidery, but an easy and common way to incorporate gold or silver into your blackwork is through the use of plaited stitches for vines. It’s an easy adaptation to make to any blackwork pattern that includes vines. Transfer your pattern without any alteration and stitch the goldworked plait over all vines before you stitch in your black thread.

Spangles are also simple to add as a finishing touch, peppered into any open areas of the design. These are simply couched or stitched down using thread that is a similar color to the spangle, and should be added last to prevent snagging of the working floss on the spangles.

 

Styles of Designs and Patterns

Period freehand blackwork patterns can be very small and self-contained, isolated elements. Very often these are worked in a line to create the appearance of a band, or spaced regularly to fill an area, sometimes with spangles or tiny geometric designs also arranged with them to fill open space left by the individual elements. They are most often floral or animal. Multiple small, individual designs can be used in a regular sequence to create more variation without adding complexity.

Possible Portrait of Queen Mary Tudor (disputed) - detail of freehand blackwork embroidery

The disputed portrait of Queen Mary Tudor (above) shows two flowers of a similar size, offset, used to fill the surface of a shirt. One of them appears to have a fill pattern used in its petals, but the photos I can find online do not show enough detail to see what that pattern is, if that detail is even present in the actual painting. The same repeating pattern is also seen on the inside of her standing partlet collar in the portrait.

Woman's Coif 1590-1610 - freehand blackwork embroidery detail - V&A Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O364617/womens-coif-unknown/

On close examination of a high resolution photo of the above blackwork, it actually looks like the holly design might be counted, but the design would also be very easy to work freehand. It is worked on the garment in an all-over repeating pattern, with the small goldwork crosses between each horizontal placement of the holly design. The fill is done with evenly spaced running stitches because the leaf area is too small to show a fill pattern.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady, (once called 'Catherine Parr', and then 'Catherine Vaux, Lady Throckmorton'); detail of freehand blackwork embroidery; by British (English) School; National Trust, Coughton Court, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/portrait-of-an-unknown-lady-130331

The Portrait of an Unknown Lady above shows the more complex end of the self-contained designs, but it’s still rather small, with enclosed areas that are too small to nicely display a counted fill pattern. It is also mirrored on the left and right sides of the garment. There is a different floral design on the sheer partlet (flowers and strawberries) and the standing collar (flowers only), and a third freehand design is in a band visible on the top of her chemise.

The bold scrolling design with shading at the top of the chemise is also worth noting as an example of a design style more often seen with polychrome or goldwork embroidery, applied as blackwork instead.

Mary I (1516-1558) - detail of freehand blackwork embroidery

The above painting shows small blackwork flowers arranged in a row along the top of the standing collar. It’s also worth noting the unusual style of scrolling blackwork on the body of the collar.

Small, individual designs are also frequently placed into the gaps created by a lattice pattern, often of knotwork, but not always.

Unknown Lady by William Segar, c. 1595 - detail of freehand blackwork embroidery

The above portrait shows a lattice knotwork pattern with individual designs within each frame. It appears to be filled nearly entirely with goldwork, but the same or a similar pattern could easily be worked without metal embroidery.

The above lattice is fairly rounded, like interlocking rings. The below lattice is made up of distinct diamond frames.

Blackwork Stomacher (1590) - detail of freehand blackwork embroidery - V&A Museum http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O319541/stomacher-unknown/

This pattern is a lattice with fleur de lis at the intersections. The other interesting detail about this piece is the shading is little stab stitches all over the background rather than within the design elements, the reverse of the way fill patterns are used on every other period example I’ve seen.

These sorts of isolated individual elements are the aesthetic basis for most Elizabethan blackwork embroidery designs, although as the designs become more complicated they are attached to each other via various vines and scrolling patterns.

Jannet Parkinson 1580 - detail of freehand blackwork embroidery

Gentle band scrolling patterns, usually of floral elements, are commonly seen for borders and arranged in lines down the body of a garment or sleeves. The open spaces in the scrolls are filled with small designs like flowers, fruits, and leaves, and small spirals. The repetition can be very short, or very long like the design above which spans a nearly the entire front of the chemise before it starts to repeat.

1600 Smock - detail of embroidery - http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/84649.html

The above band pattern is a much shorter pattern, and yet other patterns on extant pieces and portraits show patterns that repeat on every turn of the scrolling vine.

Scrolling patterns for a large field very often take an offset pattern, or a vertical pattern that alternates a counterclockwise or clockwise spiral.

Freehand Blackwork Embroidered Coif and Forehead Cloth - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228946 http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228945

The above coif is offset, with a simple, large repeating pattern on each spiral. The elements in the embroidery are large enough for counted fill patterns.

The below coif is a much busier, more complicated design, with no true repeat. The set of two floral elements that grow off the ends of the spirals repeat over most of the coif, but even those vary in places in favor of the other elements. All the other individual elements vary throughout. Many of the them do appear multiple times, but facing different directions and with different orientations, seemingly random and disorganized to the modern eye. However, the final appearance over the entire coif is complete coverage, with little spirals and round dots (berries?) filling any small spaces that would have otherwise been left empty. This is an aesthetic seen in both blackwork and polychrome embroidery in the Elizabethan, so if you are interested in creating a piece like this one I recommend looking for inspiration in both places.

Freehand Blackwork Embroidered Coif - 1600 - Museum of Fine Arts Boston http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/womans-coif-127863

Blackwork patterns in period can also be extremely expansive, taking up almost an entire puffed sleeve or shirt front. The first smock I showed near the beginning of this article is an example of this kind of work, and it is also found in portraits on the sleeves of a great many Elizabethan noblewomen. They are so large that the entirety of the pattern is impossible to see from just one vantage point, meaning that the designs in the portraits can only be guessed at in their entirety. These very large patterns are excellent for filling in with counted work because the areas of the design to be filled also tend to be quite large.

Detail from Portrait of Eizabeth I; detail of freehand blackwork embroidery; Artist unknown; Jesus College, Oxford, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_I_Jesus_College_Oxford_1590.jpg

The above pattern combines elements of lattice and scrolling vines, in addition to very very bold floral elements.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger Portrait of a Lady in an Embroidered Dress (detail of freehand blackwork embroidery) 1500's

This design is comprised of a great many individual elements all arranged so there are no large white gaps between them. It’s not clear from the viewer’s vantage point if there is any repeat at all, or if there are just a large number of isolated images that were placed to fill the space. Another interesting feature of this piece is the incorporation of human figures along with the floral and animal figures.

Besides the typical floral, animal, and vine designs, some paintings also show other stand-alone abstract or knotwork designs. These items appear to be more rare, but I believe demonstrate that just about any embroidery design or art style in use at the time may be executed using blackwork embroidery techniques. It is also possible the below examples are block printed rather than embroidered. We have no way to determine which was actually the case.

Portrait of Henry VIII of England c. 1537, Hans Holbein, the Younger (detail) - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger,_Around_1497-1543_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_of_England_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg Mary Hill Mrs Mackwilliam 1567 - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Hill_Mrs_Mackwilliam_1567.jpg

 

In Conclusion

As you can see from the examples provided here, the most common use for blackwork embroidery in the period was for clothing items, especially shirts, chemises, coifs, partlets, stomachers, and jackets. I believe it is also appropriate to use for pockets, cushions, curtains, handkerchiefs, or any other surface noble Elizabethans were inclined to embroider.

Do not worry about making your embroidery reversible, unless it will actually be seen from both sides. This is not possible with freehand embroidery, since the reverse of the stitches never looks like the front.

You are not limited purely to the stitches I have described here. Any stitches used in Elizabethan polychrome embroidery are fair game, they are just less commonly seen in extant examples.

Design inspiration may be found in extant blackwork or portraits of blackwork, but the same aesthetic styles can also be found in Elizabethan polychrome embroidery. A pattern that works for one will usually work for the other as well. If you want to reproduce a period design but are not comfortable transcribing it yourself, it may be easier to find a design from a polychrome piece since those are all freehand and most Elizabethan blackwork patterns to be found online for free are counted.

Individual elements within a design are never to scale. Instead they will usually be of similar size, regardless of how they would be in real life. For example, a flower and a bird and a snail will all be similar in size when embroidered.

Fill the space. Stand back from your design and see if there are any large white spaces that stand out. If there are, fill them with an element, a spangle, a spiral, etc., as is appropriate for your design.

Most of all, have fun.

 

If you make something inspired by my writing, I would love to see your creation.  Please share it here, on my facebook page, or tag me in a tweet (@Sidney_Eileen), instagram (@sidney_eileen), or facebook post (@bySidneyEileen).  It’s the amazing things all of you do that inspire me to provide resources like this one.

 

Freehand blackwork embroidery pattern, transcribed by Sidney Eileen, from an extant coif
Freehand Blackwork Embroidery Patterns
Visit this page to find freehand blackwork embroidery patterns that I have transcribed from extant pieces, or created in the style of extant pieces and portraits.  They are all appropriate for 16th and early 17th century style freehand blackwork embroidery, especially English style.

 

Additional Resources:

My Blackwork Pinterest board – https://www.pinterest.com/sidneyeileen/embroidery-blackwork/

Fill patterns from period pieces – http://aeg.atlantia.sca.org/projects/howto/blackwork/

Various modern patterns inspired by period pieces and created in a period style – http://www.blackworkarchives.com/

Trevelyon Miscellany. Manuscript, 1608. Excellent source of late Elizabethan era embroidery patterns. Embroidery patterns start on page 399. – http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/view/search?q=V.b.232

 

Books:

Blackwork Embroidery, by Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeill, ISBN: 048623245X
Historic and modern information, with some patterns provided and techniques described.

Blackwork, by Becky Hogg, ISBN: 9781844485512
Published by the Royal School of Needlework, provides impeccable techniques for modern counted blackwork. For historic work it is useful for stitching techniques when applying counted patterns.

Elizabethan Stitches: A Guide to Historic English Needlework, by Jacqui Carey, ISBN: 9780952322580
Excellent book on historic embroidery techniques and stitches, including metal embroidery and plaited braid stitches. Focus is on polychrome embroidery of the period. No patterns, but lots of examples of extant items that are polychrome embroidered.

Exploring Elizabethan Embroidery, by Dorothy Clarke, ISBN: 0473036347
Project book focused on polychrome embroidery, with embroidery techniques and stitches, and embroidery patterns.

Elizabethan Needlework Accessories, by Sheila Marshall, ISBN: 0473049775
Project book focused on polychrome embroidery, with embroidery techniques and stitches, and embroidery patterns.

Festive Elizabethan Creations, by Shirley Holdaway, ISBN: 0473052776
Project book focused on polychrome embroidery, with embroidery techniques and stitches, and embroidery patterns.

 

Bibliography:

British School. ‘Lady in Black’ (formerly Titled ‘Mary I’). C.1550. The Huddleston Family. Queen Mary Gallery. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Documents/queen_mary_gallery.htm>.

“Coif | British.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Collection Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228945>.

“Forehead Cloth | British.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Collection Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/228946>.

Gheeraerts the Younger, Marcus. Portrait of a Lady in an Embroidered Dress. Late 16th Century. Wikimedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Younger_Portrait_of_a_Lady_in_an_Embroidered_Dress.jpg>.

Gower, George. Jennet Parkinson, Wife of Cuthbert Hesketh of Whitehill. 1580. The Weiss Gallery. The Weiss Gallery. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <http://www.weissgallery.com/paintings/jennet-parkinson-wife-cuthbert-hesketh-whitehill-lancashire>.

Holbein the Younger, Hans. Portrait of Henry VIII of England. 1537. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection / Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Room 5.Wikimedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Holbein,_the_Younger,_Around_1497-1543_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_of_England_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg>.

Mary I (1516 – 1558). 1600. The Weiss Gallery. The Weiss Gallery. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <http://www.weissgallery.com/paintings/mary-i-1516-1558>.

Master of the Countess of Warwick. Portrait of Mary Hill, Mrs. Mackwilliam. 1567. Wikimedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Hill_Mrs_Mackwilliam_1567.jpg>.

Portrait of an Unknown Lady (once Called ‘Catherine Parr’, and Then ‘Catherine Vaux, Lady Throckmorton’). 1576. National Trust, Coughton Court. BBC – Your Paintings. BBC. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/portrait-of-an-unknown-lady-130331>.

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England. 1590. Jesus College, Oxford. Wikimedia Commons. 23 Feb. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elizabeth_I_Jesus_College_Oxford_1590.jpg>.

Segar, William. Unknown Lady. 1595. Wikimedia. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UnknownLady_Segar.jpg>.

Smock. 1600-1618. Museum of London, Storage. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag.Museum of London Collections Online. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/84649.html>.

“Smock.” V&A Search the Collections. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78732/smock-unknown/>.

Stomacher. 1590-1610. Victoria and Albert Museum, Storage. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. V&A Search the Collections. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O319541/stomacher-unknown/>.

Women’s Coif. 1590-1610. Linen, linen thread, silk thread, silver-gilt thread; sewn and embroidered. Victoria and Albert Museum, Storage. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. V&A Search the Collections. Web. 20 Dec. 2015. <http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O364617/womens-coif-unknown/>.

Woman’s Coif. About 1600. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Storage. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Collections. Web. 21 Dec. 2015. <http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/womans-coif-127863>.