Blackwork Embroidery – Sargentry Entry

This is the documentation for a blackwork embroidery entry I did for my Sargent Trials as a Courtier.


This is the documentation for a blackwork embroidery entry I did for my Sargent Trials as a Courtier.

Hans Holbien the Younger - Darmstadt Madonna (detail)
Hans Holbien the Younger – Darmstadt Madonna (detail of Anna Meyer in her wedding gown) 1526-1528


Blackwork embroidery is common on all classes of undergarments.  It is seen on hem lines, collars and cuffs.  Periodically, blackwork is displayed as trim on an article of clothing, as seen in Hans Holbein the Youngers Darmstdat Madonna c. 1528 (above).  Depending on the wealth of the owner, different materials and colours could have been used for the stitches.  Embroidery is almost invariably done on a linen base. It is thought the lower classes may have used blackwork to emulate the much more expensive lace trimming. Blackwork is often done as silk thread on a linen base, but the upper class may have used silk thread on a silk base.[1] Blackwork was common on both male and female undergarments.

The stitch type I have used is modernly called “Double Back” the style is often referred to as “Spanish Work”, presumably after Catherine of Aragorn who popularized it in Tudor England, it is documented much earlier as shown in Chaucer’s “Cantebury Tales” of the Miller[2]:

52   White was her smock, embroidered all before
53   And even behind, her collar round about,
54   Of coal-black silk, on both sides, in and out;
Hans Holbein - Jane Pemberton Small circa. 1540
Hans Holbein – Jane Pemberton Small circa. 1540

It is also called the “Holbien Stitch” due to its regular occurrence on the garments of Holbien’s subjects.  It is generally accepted that the style of small straight stitches on evenweave fabric, often counted, was brought to mainland Europe in the 14th century from the Moors and Arabs after the crusades.[3]

Patterns were often geometric or floral[4] in design and until the influence of the printing press, they were often guarded and treasured passed through generations of women.  Samplers exist of these designs, showing various motif and fill patterns in different colours and stitches.

Ground fabric would be stretched on a wooden frame[5], and a design could be counted, traced or prick & pounced onto it.  The design could then be stitched onto the ground fabric with an even tension.  There were ordinances in some cities that embroidery could only be worked during daylight hours as this type of fine work would damage the eyes.  Blackwork was likely a woman’s craft done by the ladies of a household, but men of the embroiders guild could be commissioned.[6]

This piece of blackwork embroidery will become the waist band of a pair of fitted drawers.[7]

Linen Drawers C. 1600
Linen Drawers embroidered in silver and silver-glit thread. c. 1600 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


5.3oz 100% linen – white

100% silk Gutterman sewing thread

Wooden stretcher frame

Small embroidery needle


The pattern is from Zimmerman, Jane D. The Art of English Blackwork. Zimmerman: USA, 1996. Print. It has 2 elements, the larger and small flowers connected by a straight base line.  I have attempted to design a stitch pattern below for one arm of the large flower and the small flower.  The alternating colours denote different directions.  I teach a class on the doubleback or Holbein stitch and will post the handout in another blog article.


I cut the linen 4” wide and 49.5” long. The linen strip was zig-zagged on a sewing machine to keep it from fraying during the embroidery process.
Period Practice: In period the edges would have either been selvage because the fabric was woven to width, or possibly waxed to prevent fraying.  Most often embroidery was done on a larger piece of fabric with selvages intact and then cut out and used in its final garment.

I then sewed the linen with a whip stitch onto a stretcher frame and tensioned it by wrapping the long ends around the stretcher bars until I had a taught working surface.

Beginning with an away knot, I began working the design with a double thread of black silk and weaving the working end back under the pattern at the end of a thread.

As the pattern moved to the edge of the frame, I loosened it off and rolled it to the next un-worked section to make a continuous design.

When the design is complete, I will go back through the away knots and weave them back under the pattern.

Note: This item has been in progress for a number of years and recently through a drastic weight change. I now have sufficient embroidery to complete the drawers, which will be another post at another date.

[1] Zimmerman, J. 2

[2] Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. The Miller,

[3] De Holacombe, C. 1-3

[4] Mikhaila & Malcolm-Davies, N & J. 43

[5] Arnold, J. 5

[6] Watt, M.

[7] Arnold, J. 51


Victoria & Albert Museum. 29 July 2014. South Kensington, London, England (

Watt, Melinda. English Emberoidery of the Late Tudor and Stuart Eras. Met Museum

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c. 1540 – 1660. London: Macmilan, 2008. Print

Mikhaila, Ninya & Jane Malcolm-Davies. The Tudor Tailor. London: B T Batsford Ltd, 2006. Print

Wilkins, Lesley. Beginners Guide to Blackwork. Search Press Limited: Kent, 2002. Print

Zimmerman, Jane D. The Art of English Blackwork. Zimmerman: USA, 1996. Print

Web Gallery of Art. 29 July 2014 <

De Halcombe, Christian. “The Roots of Blackwork Embroidery” Filum Aureum, Spring 2008, Electronic




Review – Dressed in Blue: The Impact of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670

There are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.

It has recently come to my attention that there are some persistent assumptions myths among historical costumers regarding clothing colours.  Fictions such as purple was only worn by Royalty, or pink is not an achievable colour in period continue to be handed down from one costumer to another.


Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg) Date: 1519 Medium: Oil on wood Dimensions: 23 5/8 x 19 5/8 in. (60 x 49.8 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 Accession Number: 14.40.633


If the goller on the girl in Virgin and Child with Saint Anne Artist: Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528 Nuremberg)  from the Met isn’t pink, I’m a monkeys uncle.

Often these tidbits are passed on with little thought to their veracity or how much harm they are doing the costuming community.

One of these “facts” recently came to me from a very reliable source (as in, they’ve written books on the subject matter and are professional historical costumers specializing in 16th century England). This “fact” was that blue was not a common colour in period and that only servants wore blue.  Since no one would want to be confused with a servant, no one wore blue who didn’t have to. Well, I can think of more then a few images of blue gowns in 16th Century German art and I’ve made a few myself.  The article Dressed in Blue: The Impart of Woad on English Clothing, c. 1350-c. 1670 by Maria Hayward addresses these assertions and assumptions using many period sources to support her claims.

Summary and points of interest:

  • In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, blue was so popular that dyers specializing in other colours launched a smear campaign against it.
  • Despite high import value and traffic, only 5% of extant pieces of textile were dyed with woad, indicating that either woad dyed textiles were less popular then trade suggests or it’s hard to detect.
  • The York livery colours were blue and murrey. Ms. Hayward speculates that this may have caused blue to go out of fashion during the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Edward VI. Those monarchs would want to distance the House of Tudor from the House of York.
  • The French love affair with the colour blue remained constant throughout the time covered. The author cites the twelve French Ambassadors attending Henry and Anne Boleyns wedding  having worn an abundance of blue velvet and silk.
  • The decline in blue worn by the nobility can be directly linked to the decline in wool worn by that class of persons. The colour never went totally out of fashion, it transitioned out of everyday ware and into costumes and uniforms using more expensive fabrics such as silks and velvets.
  • Although blue wasn’t worn by the monarchy, other members of the aristocracy are noted for it, especially in their household staff. Often the closest staff of the nobility were minor aristocrats in their own right.
  • By the Seventeenth century, city constables, town watches, and apprentices are all noted for blue apparel and uniforms.
    • Apparently the term “Blue Collar worker” goes back much farther then I originally realized.
  • Blue represented Loyalty in a highly superstitious world.
  • Court entertainment often included the colour blue in it’s costuming. The Blue Knight was a feature in tournaments beginning in the mid 14th century. The concept was so well entrenched that even Henry VIII and his team wore blue uniforms on the tilt yard in 1511, 1516 and 1524.
  • Later Masques became all the rage for court entertainment. Blue was a common colour seen in those costumes. It was said to look good in candlelight and often signified the ideals of Chivalry.
  • chatsworthinigojonesdesignsforOS59.jpg
    Drawing of a Lady Masquer by Inigo Jones c. 1613

    Vestments for the clergy were often blue even at the highest level of noble clergy.




Ms. Hayward addresses the cycle of popularity of the colour blue in the late middle ages and early modern era of England in a straight forward manner.  She neither attempts to convince the reader that blue was or was not fashionable but instead provides documentation of who was wearing it, when and why. This paper provides a very solid basis for further research into the use of the colour Blue and it’s fashionableness across England and beyond.