Plate 9. Lots more to go!


More interlaces! Three on this page. No special notes about working any of these. These are still patterns first published in my 1978 booklet.

If you’re new to blackwork, it’s not so much a single monolithic style as a collection of styles popular over about 150 years, and in many cross-pollinating countries and regions. It’s a term loosely applied to monochromatic or limited palette embroideries. Black was very popular. So was deep crimson (although I have no examples below). Other colors were not unknown and works were often further enriched with metal embroidery or spangles. The one main unifying characteristic seems to be an aesthetic of strong contrast, a white or near white linen ground.

Some examples are clearly done on the count, others freehand. In one sub-style florals or geometrics are described with a solid color, often heavy outline, and then infilled using one of several techniques. The patterns I’ve been presenting are representative of the small diaper patterns typical of one of the filling techniques.

If you’re looking for a nice visual survey on the various types of stitching that are commonly clumped together under the blackwork label, one source is the Blackwork Gallery maintained at the Medieval & Renaissance Material Culture website by Karen Larsdattir. There are many other good sites out there and I hope to share links to some of them over time, but this site has assembled links to a very representative artifacts and artwork showing blackwork on clothing and accessory items. If you have hours to lavish on the subject, I’d start there.

If you’ve got less time to spend and want the 200-foot overview, I present these links, gleaned from Karen’s page, along with minimal commentary.

First, the style that my pieces are in, sometimes called “Inhabited Scrolling Blackwork,” the heavy outlines, geometric fillings variant. Unknown lady, 1587, Queen Elizabeth, 1580

Here’s a similar style, but with a single very simple filling stitch –Forehead Cloth, 16th, 17th Century,

And one done with totally freehand fillings, shaded and mottled like shading with ink stippling – V&A T.4-1935, 1620s

And ones done with what may be a mix of counted and freehand fillings – V&A T.113-118-1997, 1575-1585 (also here); Mary Cornwallis, 1580

Scrolling blackwork in two colors – Unknown lady, 1595, Coif attributed to Anne Boleyn (but it looks later to me)

Totally freehand scrolling, no fillings at all – Lady Kytson, 1540-1546

Then there is the more linear strip or strapwork blackwork style. The strip patterns on the samplers I’ve done over the past year are of this broad subfamily – Young girl, 1525-1540, Portrait of a Young Lady, 1520-1530, Mrs. Pemberton, 1540.

Of course there are Jane Seymour’s famous cuffs, 1536

This man’s shirt is the source of one of the patterns I used on a recent sampler, V&A T.112-1972. Also you’ll note that it greenish blue. I don’t believe that it has faded from black because the color is uniform all over the piece. (Note the simple twist on the cuffs – look familiar?)

I really like this lady’s underskirt or smock skirt. You can just make out the large scale strapwork, crisp enough to have been countwork – Courtesan, 1530-1535

But not all of the strip type patterns were worked on the count – Man in Red, 1520

Proof that not every collar seen from both sides was worked double sided. This one clearly has different patterns on the inside and outside of the same garment – Lady in Green, 1528-1532.

Some blackwork is hard to identify as being either done on the count or freehand. I’d say that this lady’s sleeves and cuffs were probably done counted, but her collar is harder to pin down. It’s a nice example of a scrolling pattern though, that may or may not be infilled, inhabited blackwork style – Lady of the Bodeham Family, 1540-1545

And then there are pieces that show all over patterns, either scattered or, well – all over. These look counted to me – Coif, 1600, Lady, 1593

Chronologies are hard to pin down because fashions migrated and slowly from region to region, mutating as they traveled. Still it’s safe to say that the strip type styles tended to be popular earlier and longer than the scrolling styles, and were popular across a wider range of geography, spanning all of Europe. Eventually some of them came down to us through both the Old and New World sampler traditions; with a multigenerational, transoceanic game of Telephone blurring their patterns slowly over time.

The scrolling stuff doesn’t seem to be well represented before the 1550s or so, but really came into vogue over the ensuing 50 years. The inhabited scrolling styles seem to have achieved their greatest popularity in England and areas of English influence. Finally, the stippling style of fillings seem to have evolved at the end of classical blackwork’s reign of popularity, although freehand fillings sit happily side by side with counted ones from the earliest appearances of the scrolling outline style.

I’ll post more on this as time and space allow.

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One response

  1. Before you post to tell me the Lady in Green Link is broen, I apologize. It does not behave well. But here it is in longhand:

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