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Blackwork Embroidery

Blackwork Embroidery

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by Elizabeth Geddes

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Modern version of traditional craft; materials, techniques, patterns, projects. 320 illustrations.


Modern version of traditional craft; materials, techniques, patterns, projects. 320 illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Embroidery, Needlepoint
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By E. Geddes, M. McNeill

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1976 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17620-8



"Tell me Dorinda, why so gay?
Why such embroidery, fringe, and lace?
Can any dresses find a way
To stop the approaches of decay,
And mend a ruin'd face?"

Lord Dorset

BLACKWORK, as an embroidery method, must be so well known as to require only the briefest definition. In its widest sense, it is the embroidery in black silk on white linen which became fashionable during the reign of Henry VIII, continuing in use throughout the sixteenth century, and dying out some time between 1600 and 1630. In its initial phase, it was known as "Spanish work", and for the first fifty years of its popularity seems to have been used principally for dress embroidery. During the reign of Elizabeth I, blackwork was utilised for different styles of design, which produced variations in working technique within the method. In this half of the century its scope as a method of decoration increased, and it was worked not only on dress and dress accessories, but on a variety of household articles such as bed-hangings, and other soft furnishings not strictly in general use before the Elizabethan period.

Katharine of Aragon is reputed to have been responsible for introducing blackwork into this country as an innovation from Spain, when she came over in 1501 to marry Arthur Tudor, but there can be little doubt that counted-thread embroidery in black-and-white was known in England well before this. In their book Needlework through the Ages, Symonds and Preece remark: "... The Spanish people ... also had the Moorish tradition of white linen embroidered in black, which either in wool or silk they sometimes enriched with metal threads. When Katharine of Aragon came to England ... she encouraged the Spanish style of embroidery, which in an increasingly rich form became a marked characteristic of Tudor England, but the black embroidery of Katharine was probably not altogether unknown in England before her day...."

Embroidery has its roots in many countries and cultures, and it is often impossible to pinpoint the actual source of a particular technique, because research will reveal origins too. Ancient and diffuse to be confined within a definite place or period. Types of counted-thread embroidery in black on white are found in many countries, especially the Slavonic countries of Eastern Europe, i.e. Russia, Roumania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, where it has been a peasant industry for centuries. Indisputably the Spanish style introduced by Katharine must have been responsible for encouraging, to a greater degree, the fashion for this kind of embroidery among the upper classes, but not necessarily for starting it, and this Spanish style during its evolution must have been influenced by traditional methods introduced from North Africa.

Moorish rule in Spain was not finally overthrown until 1492, after a period of nearly eight centuries, during which time Spanish culture had been developed and influenced by her Mohammedan invaders. Spanish decorative art over this period can be seen to express the Islamic principle of symmetry, and the use of geometric motifs and all-over patterning in preference to natural forms. The Moorish era actually resulted in considerable achievements in the textile crafts of Spain, especially silk-weaving, for which she was famous, and also carpet-making and embroidery. Typical Spanish textile patterns in the fifteenth century are based on the lotus and palmette and their derivative forms, a limited number of animal subjects, such as heraldic griffins, lions, and peacocks; also foliate forms—grapevines and leaves, acanthus and rosette forms, and innumerable geometric figures—stars, circles, interlacing quatrefoils, lozenges, rectangles, arabesques. The device of the pomegranate, which is so often associated with Katharine as Queen, came from Granada, the city where she spent her childhood.

By the opening of the sixteenth century, a European era was beginning to dawn in Spain, helped by the spread of fresh artistic and intellectual ideas liberated by the Renaissance, so that by the end of the century Spanish fabrics were no longer ornamented with intricate all-over patterning, but with large individual motifs, as Gothic and Renaissance styles supplanted the geometric Islamic ones. However, at the time of Katharine's arrival in England, the artistic climate of Spain was still essentially Mohammedan, and it is possible to detect in early Tudor blackwork embroidery, where represented in paintings, the type of geometric designs which were then very characteristic of her native country.

The vogue prevalent at this time for embroidering visible portions of the underlinen seems to have begun during the late Middle Ages. The shirt was then the innermost garment worn by both sexes of the wealthier classes, the feminine version being called a smock (Anglo-Saxon) or chemise (Norman). Both shirts and smocks (or chemises) were sometimes made of silk, but more generally of linen, and from the late thirteenth century up to the seventeenth, it was the practice to embroider them at neck and wrists with gold or coloured silk. There must be few who are not familiar with a certain passage in the Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer describes Alison the carpenter's wife. He says:

"Her smock was white; embroidery repeated
Its pattern on the collar front and back,
Inside and out; it was of silk and black.
And all the ribbons of her milky mutch
Were made to match her collar, even such...."

Chaucer's Tales were written between 1388 and 1400, so the black embroidery he mentions was a precursor of Tudor work, though most likely dissimilar in appearance. (A mutch was the linen or muslin cap worn by women of that period.)

In the 1480's, at the close of Edward IV's reign, there began the practice of "slashing" or slitting the outer garments, a fashion which continued on into the sixteenth century, when it reached its most exaggerated form. At first slashing was applied to the elbows only, to allow for easier movement, and this led to portions of the inner shirt sleeve being pulled through the slits and displayed for decorative effect. Subsequently, embroidery was added to the exposed portions, and the shirt developed into an important feature of the dress. Planché says: "the opening of the sleeve at the elbow ... led to another curious fancy, the complete division of the sleeve into two or more pieces, and their attachment to each other by means of points or laces through which the shirt or chemise protruded, for the fashion was not confined to the male sex...."

In the sixteenth century the material used for these undergarments continued to be linen, and for those who could afford the luxury of sheets, towels, and napery, they too were of linen, so also were wall-hangings, either painted or embroidered. An astonishing amount was used, and although much was home-produced, it was necessary to import large quantities from abroad, especially certain of the finer qualities in demand by the wealthy, such as "holland" cloth, and cambric and lawn from Cambrai and Laon in France. In Henry VIII's reign linen cloth imports affected home production to such an extent that an early statute for the encouragement of linen manufacture to ease unemployment, required "every person occupying land for tillage, shall for every sixty acres which he hath under the plough, sow one quarter of an acre in flax or hemp". The technique of weaving cotton from imported spun fibre had reached England during the Crusades, late in the twelfth century, but cotton was slow to find favour as a clothing material in competition with wool and linen, and for some time was more often used mixed with the latter (cotton weft, linen warp) to make a type of cloth called fustian, which was worn by the poorer classes, and sometimes employed for bedding. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 made it possible to establish the British East India Trading Company at the end of the century, through which England received its first important supplies of raw cotton, and ultimately the importation of Indian cotton muslins displaced the flaxen linens and cambrics in the fashionable world.

Throughout the first half of the sixteenth century in England, the dress of the female aristocracy was rigidly confining (as indeed it was also in the second half), simple in its outlines like that of the middle classes, and principally distinguished from the latter by the lavishness of its goldsmith's work and embroidery. Male dress, designed to create an impression of burly and aggressive masculinity, was by contrast more elaborate and exaggerated. It was composed of many different layers of garments, causing a nobleman of the period to complain that men had so many pleats upon their breasts and such puffed sleeves, that it was impossible for them to draw a bow in their coats. For greater comfort, as well as in order to show them off, it was fashionable to wear the various layers open in front. The shirt now became an article of elegant attire, and those worn by the aristocracy were extremely finely woven and very costly. Occasionally they were so fine as to be semi-transparent. Giustiniani, the Venetian Ambassador, impressed by Henry VIII's skill on the tennis-courts, wrote in 1515: "... it was the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of the finest texture...."

In the Tudor period, clothes and houses provided almost the only outlets for expenditure and display. Embroidery and costly attire were upper-class prerogatives, and the various Sumptuary Laws enacted in Henry's reign, and reenacted in Elizabeth's, are the best evidence for the differences in dress which were supposed to distinguish various ranks of society. In 1553 an Act of Parliament was passed forbidding every person below the dignity of knight to wear "pinched" (pleated) shirts, or "plain shirtes garnished with silk gold, or silver". In an age when aristocratic fashions customarily took their trend from the personal tastes of the reigning monarch, Henry's interest in the affairs of his fellow sovereigns on the continent resulted in the appearance of a succession of French and Italian fashions at Court. Spanish dress, it seems, did not entirely find favour, except for the adoption of the farthingale. The dark colours, especially black, which Katharine preferred, were considered too gloomy and austere for court taste, but the Spanish style of black embroidery was obviously much admired because it was quickly adopted. One of the King's Inventories of Apparel (M. S. Harl, No. 1419) contains entries of "shirtes wrought with black silke" and "shirtes trimmed with black and white silke". Among the New Year gifts presented to Mary I in 1556, were smocks "wrought with black silk, Spanish fashion". According to Mrs Palliser, the wardrobe accounts of Katharine of Aragon herself contain frequent references to "sheets and pillow-beres (covers) wrought with Spanish work of black silk at the edge", and the inventory of Cardinal Wolsey's effects at Hampton Court Palace, which takes up forty folio pages, lists among his personal beds one which, apart from having eight mattresses, each "stuffed with thirteen pounds of carded wool," had four pillow-covers, "two of them seamed with black silk and fleurs-de-lys of gold...."

Dr Willet Cunnington has stated that Spanish work is not the same as "true" blackwork, which he asserts did not appear until later in the century—some time in the 1530's-during the time of Anne Boleyn, or Jane Seymour. However, "true" blackwork must have grown out of Spanish work, though unfortunately little, if any, of this earlier black embroidery has survived, and we have only contemporary painted portraits to provide a visual record of its manner of use, and the way in which, in conjunction with other parts of the dress, it contributed to the total splendid effect. Judging by the evidence presented by all this portraiture, Spanish work when first introduced seems to have been delicate in quality, and confined to edge treatments, but the increasing lavishness of fashionable dress enabled it to develop ultimately into the richer style. Spanish work is first shown on the neck-bands and wrist-bands of shirts and chemises, then, growing more elaborate, on standing and turn-down collars, the fronts, wrists, and sleeve-frills of men's shirts, and the shirt-sleeves themselves, where pulled through the slashed doublet sleeves. Sometimes the whole front of the shirt is embroidered, and the doublet left open to the waist to display it. Women wear blackwork embroidery on chemise fronts and wrist-frills, and another item of costume which is shown decorated with blackwork is the partlet. This was a separate accessory consisting of a buttoned-down covering to the upper part of the chest and shoulders, with a fitted neck, which was at first collarless, but had a stand-up collar added in the 1530's. The partlet was generally left open in front to show the embroidered chemise underneath. The male version, alternatively called a "plackard", was usually very ornamental, viz: "Eight partlets, three garnished with gold, the rest with Spanish work" (Inventory of Lord Monteagle, 1523, P.R.O.).

The art of painting throughout the sixteenth century was principally confined to portraiture, and of those painters who worked in the first half, the most eminent is, of course, Hans Holbein the Younger, who came to England from Antwerp. His first visit took place in 1526, at the age of twenty-nine, when he stayed nearly two years; his second was in 1532, when he settled in England and became court painter to Henry VIII. The various portraits still existing of Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn are not by him, the first of Henry's queens he painted being Jane Seymour, and one portrait is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. It shows her cuffs decorated with a repeating geometric pattern worked in a black linear technique. Another portrait, of Catherine Howard, with blackwork wrist ruffles, is in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, U.S.A. Until his death, about 1543, Holbein had a greater influence on English art than any of his contemporaries, and there have survived a large number of paintings by unknown artists which are executed in the Holbein manner, and have often been wrongly attributed to him. Other painters of note are Gerlach Flicke, Anthonis Mor, and Guillim Scrots, or Stretes, who worked in England between 1545 and 1553. The very well-known "Portrait of a Gentleman in Red", at Hampton Court Palace, is attributed to him. It was painted around 1548, and depicts a young man wearing the voluminous costume of the period, with doublet opened to display the rich black embroidery of the shirt. With it is another portrait, likewise attributed to Stretes, of Edward VI, who wears a neck frill embroidered with individual blackwork motifs, and a third painting, which is of Elizabeth I by an unknown artist, depicts her wearing blackwork sleeves.

The English were not unique in wearing their linen embellished with black embroidery. There are portraits by Continental artists at this date, such as the Italian painters Moroni and Veneto, and some of the Swiss portraits by Holbein, before he settled in England, which show that this was a widespread European fashion. One result of the Renaissance had been the emergence of a recognisably international style of costume, brought about by improved communications, and the growth of foreign travel by scholars and nobles in pursuit of the New Learning, which brought people of different countries into contact with each other as never before. Holbein's sitters wear rich black counted-thread embroidery on neck-bands and collars, which resembles Slavonic cross-stitch work, especially that of Roumania and Bulgaria. In his portrait of Simon George of Quocote (circa 1540) the embroidery appears to be reversible, in which case it might have been carried out in two-sided cross with double-running. Spanish work is assumed to have been Arabic and Moorish in origin, but an element of vagueness persists as to the actual techniques of this African embroidery. Spanish work itself probably employed several different stitches for its effect—Lady Alford defines it as "white or black silk, and gold lace stitches on fine linen", and one of these stitches seems to have been used independently as a form of decoration in its own right, and known as Spanish stitch.

Spanish work could be adapted, apparently, to interpret somewhat different types of designs, either purely geometric figures forming bands and borders, or formalised patterning based on floral and leaf forms, i.e. acanthus, pomegranate, etc. The embroidery was sometimes wholly linear, or else dark and toned areas were introduced, especially by tiny diaper fillings worked on the thread. These little geometric patterns, which are such a feature of the technique, copy in miniature the Spanish-Moresque motifs used so profusely in the architectural decoration and other applied arts of medieval Spain, but their prototypes can be traced back through early Byzantine to Graeco-Roman and Ancient Greek sources, and well beyond these, to the pattern forms of primitive man. Spanish work was frequently enriched with gold, and occasionally worked entirely in red, characteristics which persisted throughout the century. "Morisco work" was the name given to a type of couched embroidery in gold or silver, using arabesque patterns; "A pair of sleeves of Morisco work" is mentioned in the wardrobe inventory of Henry VIII, 1547.


Excerpted from BLACKWORK EMBROIDERY by E. Geddes, M. McNeill. Copyright © 1976 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Blackwork Embroidery 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I ordered this book because I found it recommended on several sites while searching for information on Blackwork on the web. The first part has the history of Blackwork, historical examples and portraits of people wearing it. The 2nd half has instructions for doing it, good instructions for designing it, plus a lot of stitches and contemporary examples. Although I personally am interested in recreating Blackwork that emulates the historical pieces I found it a very good reference for stitches when I was looking for inspiration for my fill work. And you really can¿t beat the price!