Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Brief Introduction to Non-Counted Monochrome Embroidery (Blackwork)

Monochrome Non Counted Embroidery

These are some notes I made as part of an introductory embroidery class I taught at Great Southern Gathering last year.

Blackwork’ was a popular style of embroidery in the later part of the SCA period, although the
term ‘blackwork’ is misleading as it implies that the embroidery was only done in black thread.

Classic black on crisp white is certainly striking and was very popular in the sixteenth century,
but extant monochrome embroideries  in red, green (Carew-Pole nightcap),

blue (1610 waistcoat, V&A: 179-1900), purple and pink (1630s woman’s smock at still exist.

English smock embroidered in pink silk - V&A museum

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English smock (c.1615) worked in pink silk

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Linear monochrome embroidery (often worked in double running stitch) was popular throughout Europe during the sixteenth century. In fact, this type of stitchery is so common in Holbein portraits from that time that the double-running stitch is often called ‘Holbein stitch’.

Hans Holbein the Younger - Jane Seymour, Queen of England - Google Art Project.jpg

Portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein, showing beautiful embroidered cuffs

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 Monochrome embroidery (‘blackwork’) is also found in earlier periods in Middle Eastern textiles, and the geometric shapes found in Tudor blackwork echo similar designs and shapes found in Middle Eastern embroideries. This fact may have contributed to the story that Katharine of Aragon brought
monochrome embroidery (‘blackwork’) to England when she arrived to marry Prince Arthur
Tudor in around 1501. It is believed that the occupation of Spanish territories by ‘the Moors’ influenced design and embroidery, and that ‘blackwork’ or ‘Spanyshe worke’ was introduced to England by Princess Katharine. Although references to this story are discussed in ‘Blackwork Embroidery’ by Geddes and McNeill, I have not found any firm documentary evidence that this story is true. I believe that it is just as likely that the Moorish styles were introduced to Europe via mercantile contact with Italy.

Examination of English portraiture from the reign of Henry VII and Henry VIII show a marked increase in blackwork embroidery on clothing during Henry VIII’s reign but we cannot know if this is due to the introduction of a new stitch technique, copying of a fashionable Royal or just a new fashion craze. After Henry’s reign, the Elizabethans took blackwork to a whole new level, with the development of polychrome counted and non-counted blackwork and the introduction of spangles, metal threads and raised elements.

Monochrome embroidery in the sixteenth Century was very popular in England, with portrait examples of blackwork being quite common. It was also popular on the Continent, with portraits from artists as diverse as Anthonis Mor, Hans Holbein, Guillim Scrots, Moroni and Veneto showing sitters with lavishly decorated embroidered garments.

Blackwork (and other colour monochrome work) was popular on chemises and smocks, partlets, collars and cuffs, ruffs, coifs and caps and other linens. It was executed in counted form (usually in running stitch or double running stitch) or in non-counted form, in stitches such as stem, braid, chain, speckling, feather stitch, back stitch, long and short stitch, herringbone stitch and split stitch.

Floral designs were very popular for English embroidery in the sixteenth century, due in part to the proliferation of printed pattern-books and the discovery of the strange flora of foreign lands and the New World. Designs were often copied from pattern-books, as well as bestiaries and herbals.

Blackwork can be done in non-counted form, or in counted form. In counted blackwork, the design is marked out on the background fabric (traditionally linen) by counting threads and working the design over a set number of threads, often filling the interior of the design in with a pattern or repeat. Non-counted blackwork is more free-flowing and involves stitching over a pre-drawn design. I prefer non-counted blackwork because I dislike counted work. Double running-stitch is the most common stitch used for blackwork because it provides an even line that (if done well) is neat and clean on both the front and the back. Non-counted designs can also be filled with counted embroidery for a richer effect. The same techniques can be used with multiple coloured threads also.

 A page from Shorleyker’s pattern book ‘A Scholehouse for the Needle’ (1597), one of many pattern books available in the late 1500s and reprints in the 1600s

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Arnold. J (1988) 'Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe unlocked',  Maney,

Anderson, R.M.  (1979) “Hispanic Costume 1480-1530” Hispanic Society of America, New York

Beck, Thomasina (1995) “The Embroiderer's Story: Needlework from the Renaissance to the Present Day”.  Italy: David and Charles

Cavallo, Adolph (1979) “Needlework” Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Smithsonian Institution, USA

Complete Anachronist - Blackwork Embroidery No. #31 May 1987

Complete Anachronist – Wrought with Flowers of Black Silk No. 115 April 2002

Dean, Beryl (1989) “Ecclesiastical Embroidery”, The Bath Press, Avon

Digby, George Wingfield (1963) “Elizabethan Embroidery” Thomas Yoseloff, New York.

Don, S. (1990) “Traditional Embroidered Animals” A David and Charles Craft Book, Birmingham

Geddes, E & McNeill, M. (1976) “Blackwork” Dover, New York

Gostlow, M. (1977) “Blackwork” Dover, New York

King, D. & Levey, S. (1993) “The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750” Canopy Books, New York

Levy, Santina M., (1990), Lace, A History, Victoria and Albert Museum, W.S. Maney and Son Limited, Leeds.

Nourry, C. “Patterns: Embroidery-Early 16th C” An unabridged reprint of four early 16th c. French pattern books. ISBN 1-891656-13-3. available from

Various reprints
 The Modelbuch, 1537 by Egenolff
 The Needles Excellency
 A booke of curious and strange inventions, called the first part of Needleworkes, William Barley, 1596
 A Schole-house for the Needle, Richard Schorleyker, 1632

 A second booke of flowers, fruicts, beasts, birds and flies exactly drawne, George Humble, 1635(?)


  1. A subject near and dear to my heart. Yay! Well done. Ms. Fionna

  2. Thank you for your ongoing support Mistress Fionna; I really appreciate it.