Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Blackwork, A Historical Introduction

Have you ever noticed the difference between a pretty Henrician ensemble and an exquisite one? What made the difference for you? For myself and many others, the difference that makes our heart stop is the detail and care put into the outfit. during Henry VIII's reign there are numerous ways to embellish your clothing, and most of these techniques are best done the same way there were back then-- by hand.
There are legends that state that Katherine of Aragon brought this technique to England. In the modern era, costume historians have corrected this assumption. Blackwork was indeed popularized in England by Katherine, but it was a style that had already existed in the tiny island kingdom.
Miniature of Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, painted by Lucas Horenbout. Fitzroy wears an intimate cap with a repeating blackwork pattern worked across it.

Through the numerous portraits from this period, as well as some later extent garments, costume and textile researchers have studies these techniques. Janet Arnold devotes whole passages in her book, Patterns of Fashion 1560-1615, to style of embellishment and embroidery.

Getting patterns for these embroideries, such as counted and uncounted blackwork, from period portraits and textiles can be fun. Remember to start with a simple pattern and work your way up in complexity.
Counted patterns can be a little more complicated to reproduce, but they are well worth the effort.
This portrait of Bess of Hardwick painted in the 1550's is famous for its simple and intricate embroidery using this technique. Not only is the interlocking pattern on her sleeves greatly detailed, but it is also a leading example of colors, other than black, which were used.

a simple way to try this technique and incorporate it into your 16th century closet. Make a cuff for your smock or shirt using a high count cross stitch linen. Embroider the fabric in two rows, long enough to use as your cuff. Don't for get to leave about a 1/2 inch to 1 inch seam allowance for sewing your cuffs together and attaching them to your garment. As you get better move away from the cross stitch linen  and use linen the same weight and the rest of the garment. Once you are comfortable with embroidering on standard linen fabric try embroidering some frills to attach to your cuffs.
Miniature of Queen Katherine Howard by Hans Holbein the Younger, ca 1541.

For More information on this technique and some practice patterns try some of these links.
West Kingdom Needleworkers Guild
Blackwork Archives
Embroidery class taught by Taught by Baron K. Braden von Sobernheim