Blackwork for Beginners
as posted by Lara the Lacemaker (

Blackwork is a "counted thread" embroidery that was enormously popular in the
Tudor/Elizabethan eras. (Since print fabric was rare and costly, many folks
used various forms of needlework to decorate their clothing and household
Counted thread means simply that each stitch is made over or across the same
number of fabric threads, creating a pattern. If you have done cross stitch,
you have done counted thread embroidery...if not then blackwork is a wonderful
place to start learning! (I will be assuming near ignorance in the following
info, so feel free to skim past stuff you already know.)

Fabric: Many stitchery/hobby stores carry linen in a variety of colors and
"counts." The "count" is the number of threads per a 14-count fabric
has much bigger (easier to see) threads than 18 or 32 count fabric. Depending
on your preference (and eyesight) you can work whichever you wish...most folks
find that working over two threads is easier than over one, but you can work
over any number as long as you are consistent. If you work over two threads on
32 count fabric, you get 16 stitches per inch, if you work over four threads,
you get eight stitches per inch, etc.
Aida, or "cross stitch fabric" is specially woven with tiny holes at regular
intervals. Tho not period, it is a good choice for those unfamiliar with
counted thread embroidery. (Also good for younger stitchers!)
Other fabrics can be used as long as the thread count is even both across and
down (or you compensate for any uneven-ness...but that's for more advanced
If the fabric you want to adorn is just too fine to count, there is a product
called waste canvas that comes printed in grids. This is tack onto the fabric
and then embroidered over, using the grid as your guide. When complete, wet
canvas and the glue dissolves, allowing the threads to be teased out from the
stitchery. (This is best for smaller areas.)
A simliar product called "Solvy" exists that dissolves completely in water!
Another possibility is to blackwork a seperate fabric and then sew it onto the
garment. This is an easy solution for cuffs and collars and looks great!

I use DMC black cottom embroidery floss (you can use other colors, red for
scarletwork was especially popular in period), usually only a single strand for
high count fabric or a double for low count (14 or lower). A good rule of
thumb is to try to match the thickness of the thread used in the fabric you are
working on.
Silk thread, tho harder to find and more costly, is quite period and wonderful
to work with...but be aware that it may not be as washable as cotton!
(Available from Bob Paterson Co- for size 60/2)

I *highly* recomend using a tapestry needle for blackwork. Tapestry needles
are blunter than regular sewing needles, so it is easier to avoid splitting the
fabric thread instead of sewing between the threads. They also have large,
easy to thread "eyes." Tapestry needles come in several sizes, in general the
finer the fabric the finer the needle you should use.
Note: Needles in period were among a lady's most valued possessions! Most
were made of bone or ivory, more rarely of metal. Nowadays, it is the
bone/ivory ones that are hard to come if you work on your stitchery at
faire, be sure to have a great story ready to explain how you got the wondrous
fine needle you're using! (Or get a fossil ivory needle from Bob Paterson

Frames and Hoops:
Although blackwork can be done without a hoop, most find it easier when the
fabric is held taut. Wooden hoops are super inexpensive and available in a
wide range of sizes. (If you hide the little metal tension screw, they are
period, so you can embroider at faire!) A little more expensive but better to
work with are the scroll type frames. These consist of two clamping sides and
two cross bars. The clamping bars have slotted ends to allow the cross bars to
be removed or the work advanced and tightened in place. Most use wing nuts,
but some have wooden knobs (you can get the knobs seperately, too). The cross
bars have sturdy fabric attached to them and come in a range of lengths. Baste
the edges of the work to the fabric on the rods and roll up any excess. Now as
you finish one area, you need only scroll to the next! (This is the best type
to use for larger projects.)

Okay, so you've got the fabric, the needle is what? If you
haven't done much embroidery, start small! A single motif in the corner of a
handkerchief looks lovely and is quick, too. Bookmarks or favors are also good
first projects. If you have more experience/confidence, try a collar and/or
cuffs decorated with a simple repeating pattern. When choosing a pattern, be
aware that tho denser patterns may take more time to finish, they are actually
easier (yep...hard to believe but true!) because the stitch interrelate so
closely it is easy to notice if you've gotten off kilter.

It happens to everyone, you suddenly notice that you've goofed...what now? It
depends on the degree of the error and how far back it was made. If it is only
a a dozen or so stitches back, unthread the needle and carefully pull the
thread out, stitch by stitch until the problem is corrected. If the error is
back farther than you want to undo, you need to evaluate the problem. Is it
possible to live with it? (Folks made mistakes in period, too, ya know!) Can
you compensate for the error by taking slightly smaller or larger stitches? If
not, try snipping the thread and undoing the error. Fasten the cut ends off
(on the back of the work, of course) and restitch the empty spot.

General Info:
There are two types of blackwork. One type uses patterns to fill in areas
outlined by another stitch (stem or chain stitch work nicely) and the other
uses the pattern of the stitch *itself* to form the design.

Lara the Lacemaker

AFR"Demo" Goddess of Lace
(AFR FAQ'S Link)
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Wench #314
Summa Cum Humor, Bishop of the Temple of the Smart Ass Remark
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