Blackwork embroidery is a kind of counted-thread embroidery traditionally worked with black silk floss on even-weave fabric. When it’s worked with red thread, the name is redwork, or scarletwork. Mono-color embroidery was common in many cultures from the ancient period on, but what is now known as blackwork embroidery, employing very geometric motifs and scrolling designs, became a distinct style during the 1600s in England. The style was commonly associated with Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and was first called Spanish work, after her home country of Spain.
In blackwork, the visual interest is provided primarily by intricate geometric designs. The original designs identified with Catherine of Aragon and the court of Henry VII were very reminiscent of the Moorish decorative style that so influenced Spanish decorative arts for centuries. These designs featured interlocking lines and shapes that allowed the underlying fabric to show through. Cuffs and collars were the items most commonly decorated with blackwork during this period. Blackwork embroidery of this period was worked in Holbein stitch, a double running stitch which looks the same on both sides of the fabric.
During the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, the popularity of blackwork embroidery continued. Design motifs changed somewhat and were influenced by woodcut illustrations in printed books, which were becoming more widely available. Flowers, stems, and leaves became popular parts of blackwork embroidery designs. These representative shapes had solid borders filled with geometric interlocking designs. Elizabethan stitchers gradually abandoned the use of Holbein stitch in favor of simpler stitches.
Interest in blackwork embroidery continued sporadically during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the intricate designs of earlier years yielded to shapes filled with a random pattern of straight single stitches, sometimes called speckling. More intricate blackwork again became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Modern blackwork is usually representational, consisting of solid outlines filled with various geometric designs. Some of this work is so intricate it looks very much like pen and ink pictures or prints.
The Renaissance Faire movement of the late 20th and early 21st century renewed popular interest in Tudor and Elizabethan costuming and began a revival of the early style of blackwork. Many authentic patterns and techniques from the 1600s have been documented and brought back into current practice, including use of the Holbein stitch. Modern recreation work is often done with cotton rather than silk floss to allow easier washing of the period costumes but is otherwise technically authentic.