[Repost of material originally appearing 10 August 2006]

My old friend Marian pointed me at a fascinating Web-based resource. The Web Gallery of Art. It’s an on-line (sort of) searchable collection of art images from pre-1800. I’m in the middle of thumbing my way through Renaissance-era portraiture, in part to plain old enjoy it, but also with an eye to the embroidery used on clothing.

Now the few folk who visit here may know that in addition to knitting, I’m a sucker for embroidery. Especially counted embroidery from before 1600. My favorite family of styles is often lumped under the term “blackwork,” and had a popularity run spanning about 100 years or so, until it morphed into other things and/or fell out of fashion for upper-class clothing, sometime between 1600 and 1630. It did however live on through its descendants (most familiarly some of the bandwork common on early samplers) and peasant embroideries of several regions Through these descendants some of blackwork’s substyles have enjoyed little renaissances in the centuries since.

So. What is blackwork?

Not to be facetious, it’s monochrome embroidery worked in black thread on white ground. Most but not all of the time. Non-black or multiple colors were occasionally used. Most people think of it as counted work – embroidery that uses the threads of the ground fabric as a foundation “graph”.. Again, most but not all of the time. Some sub styles are clearly worked on the count. Others may have been, and still others are clearly freehand drawn. Some people are under the impression that there are clearly defined national or regional substyles, with English work being distinct from say German or Italian. Again, that’s partly but not entirely true. If you’re unfamiliar with the basics, The Skinner Sisters website has an excellent survey of Blackwork styles available on line.

Here’s one of the most famous examples of band style blackwork, worked on the count. It’s seen on the sleeves of Jane Seymour, as painted by Holbein in 1536 (you can click on the images in the linked pages to display them in greater detail). Very linear, clearly done both two-sided and on the count in a stitch that today goes by several names – Holbein Stitch, Spanish Stitch, Double Running Stitch. Harder to see (peeking out just above the gold and red units at the edge of the bodice – is a tiny line of blackwork on Catherine of Aragon, painted circa 1525-7 by Lucas Horenbout. Catherine is often said to have introduced the fashion for blackwork to the English court.

Here are heavier outlines, but still very geometric, suggesting a counted ground to me: Pierfrancesco di Jacopo’s Portrait of a Lady, dated to 1530-1535. This one, too – Gentleman in Adoratio nby Giovanni Battista Moroni, dated 1560. Moroni’s Gentleman wears a style that I associate more with English strapwork than embroidery of Northern Italy. To some extent, these styles traveled via printed pattern books and were international.

These suggest work on the count, but possibly in satin stitch rather than double running or another linear stitch. Bernadino Luini’s Portrait of a Lady, 1525. (See. Not all early blackwork is double running!). Also this one – Romanino’s Portrait of a Man, 1516-1519. This is the picture that Marian alerted me to, starting this whole rumination. The regularity of the piece leads me to think “counted.” The angles of the ends of the leaves makes me think “satin stitch” rather than a solid filling done in another method.

This one – Portrait of a Venetian Man by Jan van Scorel (1520) looks very much like cross stitch is used to form the stitched repeat. It’s also done in red. There is no zoomable detail page for it on the website.

Of the most famous types is the inhabited style, in which outlines were infilled with all-over patterns, done on the count. My own forever project is an example of this type, although it’s my own composition and not a repro of a historical piece:


Bettes’ 1585-90 portrait of Elizabeth shows sleeves that are (at least in part) done in the inhabited style (Link via the Tudor Portraits site)

Yet another sub-style, again outlines done freehand (or drawn) rather than on the count, and accented with metal thread work. The most famous again is in a portrait by Holbein – Catherine Howard‘s cuffs, 1541. Here’s another example of freehand outlines but without the infilling geometrics: the shoulder area of Hillard’s portrait of Elizabeth I, 1575-6. Some examples of this subgroup use stippling (tiny scattered stitches) almost like pen-done line shading to provide textural or shadowed interest, or include embellishments like seed beads, pearls, or spangles.

More blackwork using colored threads? Here’s Caterina van Hemessen’s self portrait, 1548. Although tough to see, I’m pretty sure there are red cuffs and collar bands there. Red was the most popular color used after black. (I wish I could see her coif better)

There were other styles, too. All confusingly lumped together under the modern term “blackwork.”

Finally, there are portraits that show things that look vaguely familiar, but not in enough detail to be sure they are related.

  • Band stitching, done in gold, with details too small to determine whether it was worked on the count – Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Woman Wearing Gold, (undated, but the artist lived 1500-1556).
  • A small collar worn by a man. Looks vaguely blackwork like, but detail isn’t very clear. Foschi’s Portrait of a Man (1530s)
  • Matching(?) bands on chemises of both husband and wife. Lorenzo Lotto, 1523. Possibly freehand.
  • More red blackwork? This time possibly on the collar of Charles V’s undershirt, in a piece by Bernaert van Orley, 1519-1520.
  • Blackwork on edge of chemise? It’s so light as to be doubtful. Portrait of Jacquemyne Buuck, by Pieter Pourbus, dated 1551
  • An all-over design produced by counted black stitching, or some sort of brocade? Hard to tell. Ambrogio de Predis Portrait of a man, dated 1500


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2 responses

  1. This is wonderful, well-organised information. In my small city in northern California, we don’t have a lot of medieval portraiture hanging about (!), so knowing where to go on the web is especially helpful. This also gives me an idea of how to start organizing my research into whitework. Thank you for all your work, both in this endeavor and others. I profit from your knowledge.

  2. […] Digression – Blackwork Embroidery. Lots of links to portraits and other artworks showing blackwork. Some of them might still work. […]

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