The History Of Blackwork
There is much discussion as to when and where blackwork started. There has long been a popular belief it came from Spain and so it was referred to as Spanish blackwork. Historically, however, it is often impossible to pinpoint the precise source of a technique.
Blackwork was used widely on garments from approximately 1450 into the early seventeenth century. Few examples remain from this period, as the designs were a popular form of patterning on clothing and household linen (made from white linen or cambric) constant use and washing meant most pieces were thrown away when they became worn. The iron (ferrous sulphate) used to dye the black silk thread soon turned an unattractive blackish brown.
The late Middle Ages saw a vogue for embroidering underlinen - the shirt worn by both sexes of the wealthier classes. The feminine version was called a smock (Anglo-Saxon) or chemise (Norman). Generally made of linen, but sometimes of silk, they were decorated at the neck and wrists with gold or coloured silk. At the close of Edward IVs reign slashing (slitting) the outer garment came into fashion, with the shirt being pulled through the slits to show further decoration.
Through the time of
Henry VIII and into the Elizabethan period, blackwork moved from decoration on dress and
clothing accessories onto a variety of household articles. Linen continued to be used into
the sixteenth century, by those who could afford it, in such household articles as sheets,
towels and napery as well as wall hangings.
In 1553 an Act of Parliament was passed forbidding everyone below the rank of Knight to wear pinched (pleated) shirts or plain shirtes garnished with silk gold or silver. The reigning monarch set the style. One of the Kings Inventories of Apparel contains entries of shirts wrought with black silke.
The early seventeenth century saw the demise of blackwork as embroiderers looked in other directions, but by the late nineteenth century the climate had again changed. By the 1960s new life was injected into blackwork through the Needlework Development Scheme of Great Britain, which had a beneficial influence on all kinds of embroidery during this time.
Blackwork continues to be very popular with embroiderers. The pattern-making is so satisfying, the idea that you can just get yourself some squared paper and draw up your own patterns. Just to take a piece of evenweave fabric and start stitching is so pleasing. But there is more to it than this - the greatest satisfaction comes from building the tones in a design, changing tonal value just by changing the thread or by opening the stitch, making it larger or more spacious in its interpretation; the many threads that can be used, the many textures of one colour, thick, thin, soft, coarse ... wool, cotton, silk, linen or rayon's.
(Excerpts taken from Embroidery Ideas From Blackwork" by Pat Langford)
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