We explore the history and characteristics of this traditional English embroidery technique
With embroidery being one of the most ancient arts in history, it’s not really surprising that every culture, country, and even region, has developed their own types and techniques. Blackwork is a traditional English embroidery technique which has been very popular. Originating around about the 15th century, here we explore its history and learn more about how it is used.
What is blackwork?
As its name suggests, blackwork is an embroidery technique that traditionally uses black silk thread, which is usually stitched onto linen or cotton fabric. However, today, the fabric and materials that are used vary greatly.
There are three particular styles of blackwork that have been made popular over the centuries: one that features geometric patterns, which are sometimes abstract and include florals or elements of nature; another that uses more elaborate curved lines, and often includes flowers, fruit, and other more complex patterns; and lastly, one that adds shading and gradients using more sporadic stitching.
People are said to have been using blackwork in the British Isles before the 1500s, although legend has it that it was introduced by Catherine of Aragon of Spain. It is said that she brought over numerous garments that had been embroidered using this technique. Either way, during the period of Henry VIII, blackwork was seen a lot on shirts and nightgowns; when Elizabeth I was on the throne, it was one of the most popular embroidery techniques in the country, being used to decorate both clothes and homes. Unfortunately, by the 17th century, its popularity plummeted, only regaining it in more recently.
What materials are needed?
–embroidery hoop: either round or oval.
–fabric: if you’re a beginner, it’s better to use Aida cloth–this is a fabric with larger squares that is used for cross-stitch embroidery. If your level is more advanced, you can use a Monaco fabric, which has smaller squares.
–embroidery scissors: it’s important to have a decent pair of scissors. They don’t have to be the most expensive pair, but they should be reliable so that you don’t end up wasting time.
–needles: size 22 and 24, for the different types of thread used for blackwork. It’s best that they don’t have a sharp tip and have an elongated eye.
–fabric marking pencil: so that you can trace your embroidery patterns onto your fabric.
–thread: You can use different thread weights, depending on your goal. You could combine, for example, a number 8 or 12 Perle cotton thread with the Mouline floss, which is thinner, to achieve different textures and shading.
If you want to master blackwork embroidery, sign up to Gimena Romero’s course, Introduction to Blackwork Embroidery. You will learn all about this traditional English embroidery technique and create some unique pieces using iconic patterns.
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