CharacteristicsBlack thread is usually used in different thicknesses Worked on white evenweave fabric, usually linen Stitches used are double running or back stitch Stitches worked into geometric filling patterns, some of which are reversible Designs, with light or dense fillings and differing thicknesses of thread provide shades of light and texture.
Blackwork was practised long before Tudor times. In the 1300s it was mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in a description of Alison, the carpenter’s wife.
Catherine of Aragon, born in Spain and the first of HenryVIII’s six wives, was Queen for twenty five years. She popularised “Spanish Work”, as it was then called, bringing the high fashions of Spain to England. At first it was used on neck bands and wrist-bands, but then grew more elaborate and was applied to sleeve frills, sleeves, shirt fronts and collars.
Spanish culture had been influenced by Moorish rule which ended in 1492 after nearly eight centuries. Spanish decorative art reflected the Islamic principle of symmetry, the use of geometric motifs and all-over patterning.
In early Tudor and Jacobean times, delicate blackwork stitching was used on garments in place of lace which was heavily taxed and therefore expensive. The technique, in vogue for well over a century, was often used on household furnishings, and some ecclesiastical work.
The term “Spanish Work” was replaced by “Blackwork” when Spain and all things Spanish fell out of favour after Henry divorced Catherine in 1534.
The basic stitch is a double running stitch, often called Holbein Stitch after the 16th century court painter, Hans Holbein, whose portraits illustrated in fine detail the blackwork patterns on the garments of nobility.
Claire Adams and Valerie Cavill