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Blackwork Embroidery Tutorial

Blackwork embroidery tutorial

This blackwork embroidery tutorial was written and designed by Little Miss Fancy Frocks, the dynamic mother and daughter duo who lovingly create handcrafted clothing for adults and children. Visit their Facebook page here.

The series is sponsored by Minerva Crafts, suppliers of all your embroidery requirements.

Traditionally blackwork embroidery was used to decorate shirts, collars, cuffs, ruffs and smocks for ladies and gentlemen. The designs were normally geometric or floral.  Black silk thread was used on an even weave, white linen background. It was initially referred to as a ‘poor mans’ lace’ because of its lacy appearance. It was popular in England from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. Katherine of Aragon (a Spanish princess) was the Queen of England from 1509 – 1533 and she popularised the term ‘Spanish Blackwork’ due to her fondness for the embroidery.

Today blackwork can be used on a wide range of fabrics, using a variety of threads, colours and designs.


 You will need…

Supplies for blackwork

Hardanger fabric count 22 (this can be purchased by the metre or in a pack 30.5cm x 45.7cm (12″ x 18″). Alternatively you can use Aida.

Anchor stranded thread in black

A tapestry needle, with an eye large enough to take the thread and a blunt point

A pair of embroidery scissors

An embroidery hoop



Blackwork traditionally employs two types of stitches – outline and filling.

The outline stitch is worked first to give definition to the shape required and the filling stitches are worked within the outlined shapes.

Holbein stitch and back stitch are popular for working outlines, alternatively you can use stem stitch or chain stitch.

Filling stitches generally consist of a single motif which is repeated forming a pattern. Today you can use traditional blackwork patterns or take patterns from the environment. We have replicated paving patterns from the street, brickwork, trellis from the garden, and many more. Doodling on graph paper can produce lots of useful patterns too.


Holbein Stitch

Holbein stitch

Holbein stitch is widely used to outline and is sometimes referred to as a double running stitch. It looks the same on both sides of the fabric.

Work the first row from left to right, bringing your thread onto the surface of the fabric count five holes, go under the fabric resurfacing five holes to the right and continue in this manner. The stitches and the gaps between the stitches are always equal in length.

Working the second row from right to left bring your thread onto the surface and retrace your stitches to fill in the gaps from the first row.

We have used six strands for a dense outline but you can use one or more as you choose. You can also vary the length of the stitches as long as the stitches remain the same length as the gaps between them.


Back Stitch

Backstitch in blackwork

We have used six strands for this sample to give a heavy outline, but you can use fewer. Working from left to right work your first stitch and count five holes before taking the thread under the fabric at the sixth hole. Resurface in the middle hole, you will have two holes either side of the needle. Work your next stitch taking the thread five holes to the right and resurface in the middle of the five holes. This very simple stitch is continued to give the outline shape.


Running Stitch Patterns (1)

Running stitch in counted thread work

Running stitch is a very versatile stitch and can form the basis of many patterns.

On the bottom right hand sample we used a simple running stitch where the stitches and the gaps are equal in length and we worked several vertical and parallel rows.

On the bottom left hand sample we worked horizontal rows of running stitches to form boxes.

On the top right hand sample we worked a second row of running stitch in between the first row (Holbein stitch) and finished the pattern with a vertical row of running stitch to give a brick effect.

The top left hand sample consists of vertical and horizontal rows of running stitches to form a grid.

Running Stitch Patterns (2)

Stitches in blackwork

Using Holbein stitch we have worked the first vertical row (top left) filled the gaps with the second vertical row of running stitch (top right). We worked the horizontal rows in the same way (bottom left) and then worked a box shape around the intersecting lines (bottom right).


Cross Stitch Patterns

Cross stitch in blackwork

Cross stitch is also a very versatile stitch to use in forming simple patterns.

The first stitch in a cross stitch is always worked in the same direction e.g. bottom left hand corner to the top right hand corner whilst the second stitch is always worked in the opposite direction, bottom right hand corner to the top left hand corner.

The top right sample shows crosses worked in an alternate manner. The gaps between the stitches are the same size as the crosses.

The bottom right sample alternates the crosses and the gaps to give a trellis effect.

The bottom left sample works crosses in a grid formation. Whilst the top left sample works crosses in groups of five to form star shapes.



Hexagons in blackwork

This pattern is based on a simple box shape. The first stitches are worked around a central square to form a flower shape. A cross is added in the centre of each shape. A stitch is added to extend the top of each motif.

This design can be worked as a border pattern or as a repeating pattern to fill in a large area.


Chessboard embroidered in blackwork

We used the idea of small samples of blackwork to produce a large chessboard for use outdoors for the grandchildren. Every square is a different pattern. The children were keen to design some of the squares which they did by doodling with graph paper.

We worked the main frame of the board before completing the squares with filling stitches.

Using this blackwork embroidery tutorial you can incorporate these blackwork stitches into your projects. 

For more embroidery tutorials visit our techniques page and click the ’embroidery’ tag.