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




Aprons – A Historical Overview

Aprons can be seen everywhere, on everyone in the 15 and 16th Centuries.  Worn by both men and women at work and at play, they appear to be a standard attire throughout the early modern era.

Worn by the lowest classes as working garments to offer some protection for their dearly owned clothing underneath, aprons were also worn by the highest classes as a show of status in extravagant embellishment and fine work.  Even women of the gentry would need some protection of their clothing when doing the various household tasks not trusted to the staff.

Clothing cost money.  Lots of money.  The poorer classes would have 2 maybe 3 outfits.  One for church, one for the rest of the time. They ate, drank, worked, and even slept in the same small wardrobe.  In order to maintain the best condition of their clothing, protective layers (both inside and out) were made of cheaper materials. Items such as the hemd (English: smock, Italian: chemise) and the schürze (English: apron) were generally made from linen and served this purpose.  I believe there are some records of wool aprons, but I am lacking a citation at the moment. It would make sense, since wool was nearly as cost effective as linen, although harder to clean.

Aprons in 16th century Germany are standard to a few different styles.  I will explore these designs in detail in future posts.  For now I will refer to them as “Front Aprons”, “Full Aprons” and “Shoulder Suspended”

Image 1, Center: Full Apron, Right: Front Apron
Image 2: Left: Shoulder Suspended Apron

Aprons were often smocked with either basic or elaborate embroidery, displayed cutwork and pulled thread work. The colours ranged from undyed to black, reds, blues, greens and yellows can be found in imagery of the time.  Most often, aprons were white presumably for ease of cleaning and re-bleaching for reuse.

Like head coverings, aprons are something we often neglect in our portrayals of persons in history. In our modern recreations of historical dress, we go for the flashy, big picture. Accessories are the details that blur the lines and make our garb more authentic and feel more real.

Image 1:  Costumes and moral images of the 16th century from Western and Eastern Europe, Orient, the New World and Africa – BSB Cod.icon. 361

Image 2: The Sächsische Stammamuch – Mscr.Dresd.R.3