Mace and Nairn




Black work is believed to have originated in Spain in the 14th-15th centuries; Katharine of Aragon is credited for introducing it to England. 


Blackwork is classified as a counted thread technique and is traditionally stitched on an evenweave fabric.


Traditionally worked in black silk threads on white linen using repeat/geometric patterns, (also referred to as diaper patterns) however it was not unknown for Blackwork to be worked in red and other dark colours. 


As a contrast to the monochrome effect, gold and other metallic threads are used for outlining the pattern or adding detail.  Seeding/speckling is used for additional shading.


Like many other forms of embroidery, motifs and patterns were historically copied from pattern books which often featured architectural designs and botanical studies.  Trailing stem designs around flowers, fruits, birds and inspects were also very popular.


Any design can be stitched in Blackwork as long as it includes areas of shading/tonal contrast.

Although Blackwork was historically associated with costume it also featured on household linens and soft furnishings.


The beautifully embroidered Blackwork on ornate costumes painted by Hans Holbein, in the 16th century, led to the double running stitch used for the technique to be referred to as Holbein stitch.



Evenweave white, off white (often referred to as antique white), or natural coloured linens and cottons are usually used for Blackwork.  A beginner may start with a 22 count (threads to the inch) Hardanger fabric, which has a block weave and is easy to count while a more experienced embroiderer may prefer a 32 or 35 threads to the inch fabric such as Belfast or Edinburgh 100% Linen.

Using a finer fabric, which is a fabric with a larger number of threads per inch (TPI) produces a more delicate appearance. 



Different thicknesses of thread can be used to change the appearance of a Blackwork pattern and by changing the detail in the pattern shading/tonal effects can be achieved. 

Although Silk threads are the more traditional Blackwork thread, Cotton threads including different thicknesses of the same threads, like Coton a broder, can also be used.  A thread pack with a variety of thicknesses is


Even a single thread of stranded embroidery thread can be very effective and using multiply strands can change the definition.  Fine metallic threads in gold or silver, which contrast with the black thread, such as DMC Stranded metallic can be used to add detail and Twists can be used for outlining.  Spangles can also add effect. 



A range of books are available, some with projects while others are more technique orientated. The most recent publication from the Royal School of Needlework Essential Stitch Guide range Blackwork, covers all the basics including history, materials, design, stitches, patterns and shading, with detailed instructions and photographs. It has a lay-flat spiral binding.


Jack Robinson wrote wonderful books on Blackwork, some of which are still available - but they may be difficult to get hold of!



For Blackwork it helps to keep your work taut and either a slate frame or embroidery hoop are useful equipment to have.  Slate frames are available in different sizes to suit your project and a Seat frame or Table clamp with an embroidery hoop allows you to stitch ‘hands free’.



There is some debate whether to use a blunt Tapestry needle or a pointed Crewel/Embroidery needle for Blackwork. Usually in counted thread embroidery you would use a blunt needle to stitch through the holes of the fabric.  However if you use a pointed needle you can stitch back into the previous stitch or into the next stitch for a more continuous, straight line.


Good quality Embroidery Scissors are essential.











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