Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Holbein Embroidery - Blackwork in Colors!

"Unicorn", Holbein embroidery on checked gingham
"Unicorn", Holbein embroidery on checked gingham
I've been showing some Spanish blackwork, redwork, and Holbein embroidery at outdoor craft shows this summer. I find that these techniques are unfamiliar to many people; nevertheless, people find them fascinating. Their first impulse is to touch the embroidery. I seldom frame this type of embroidery under glass for just this reason. If people want to touch the stitches, I like to give them the opportunity to do so. I'm very tactile, myself, so I understand the impulse. Because it is white with a delicate gold-foil wrapped thread in it, I did frame this one, Unicorn,”  under glass because it might suffer from a lot of touching.

A Holbein embroidery version of "Onion Domes"
A Holbein embroidery version of  "Onion Domes"
Holbein embroidery is a special case of Spanish blackwork, so popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. The name is sometimes used interchangeably with “blackwork”. I've taken the position that, as I use the term “Holbein embroidery”, it differs from the traditional blackwork or redwork in two ways: it is done in multicolor, rather than solid black or red; and, it can be done on canvas as well as fabric. (Blackwork and redwork are traditionally done on linen, but that's a “rule” I break a lot!) Besides, I find “Holbein embroidery” a term less confusing than “blackwork done in color”. Our purpose here is to bring these Renaissance techniques into the 21st Century to use on contemporary projects. For example, here are the onion domes, previously done in blackwork (see my Feb 27, 2014 post), done in Holbein embroidery. I seldom do the same design more than once and never in the exact same way but it seemed worthwhile to repeat this in order to let you compare and contrast the two techniques.

Detail of blackwork from Simon George, by Hans Holbein the Younger.jpg
Detail from "Simon George", by Hans Holbein the Younger
The style of needlework is named in honor of Hans Holbein the Younger, who was the official court painter for King Henry VIII of England from 1537 to 1543, and who painted detailed renderings of the fancy embroidery on royal attire. (See the post for January 29, 2014 for another example of his work.) Until now we have concentrated on cross-stitch and other short, straight stitches, as well as edging stitches like back-stitch, stem stitch, outline stitch or chain stitch. Now we need to add the Holbein stitch, a double-running stitch used widely in Holbein embroidery. Its virtue is that it covers both sides of the fabric. When it is done skillfully, there is no “right” or “wrong” side to the piece. The double-running is a versatile stitch, especially for borders, and we will return to it later this year when we discuss folk embroidery. Once a couple of lines of Holbein stitches are laid in parallel to each other, they can be whipped, couched, threaded. laced, back-stitched, interlaced, made into Pekinese stitch, etc.

Holbein stitch sampler
Holbein stitch sampler
Holbein stitch is made up of evenly-spaced running stitches worked in one direction, then worked in the reverse direction to fill the spaces between the stitches, using the same needle holes that were used the first time. The running stitches may be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. I've tried to simplify the process by stitching on checked gingham so the stitches are of uniform lengths, and by using different colors for the forward and backward stitches. Traditionally, the first stitches go from right to left. If you are left-handed, however, you may find it easier to work from left to right. You can turn your fabric at the end of each stitch row if you like, so that you are always stitching in the same direction. Check your practice work from time to time to see that the stitches are uniform on both sides of the fabric. This takes some practice, especially to avoid splitting stitches. On the stitch sampler we have: 1) double-running stitch, 2) a Greek Key design, 3) a stepped design, 4) the stepped design reversed, 5) a design using Holbein stitch vertically, 6) a pattern with diagonal stitches and 7) the last reversed. Combine 3 and 4 to get a border with plenty of space for another design in cross-stitch, star stitch, lazy daisy, etc., inside each outlined space. Combining 6 and 7 gives you a smaller border, but still has room for an extra motif inside.

Holbein embroidery fill patterns
Downloadable Holbein embroidery fill patterns
Holbein embroidery uses the same filling designs and diaper patterns that we have used before (see the posts for October 6, 2013 and February 27, 2014), as well as more elaborate leaf, flower, fruit and insect designs. I've prepared a sheet of those that you can download by clicking on the picture. The patterns inside frames are all-over filling designs. Some of these are larger than the ones we've been using, so they will require patterns with larger spaces to fill or smaller-scale background fabric. The next (unframed) patterns may stand alone (as snowflakes perhaps), be joined together to make borders, or be expanded to make all-over fillings. Finally, there are some narrow border designs which can be used vertically or horizontally or both.

Holbein embroidery "doodles"
Holbein embroidery "doodles" (Downloadable)
Here are some of the designs I've been playing around with as fillers or for use on small projects. If you like to “doodle” and make little drawings while you talk on the phone or wait at the doctor's office, you should try making small motifs like these of your own. The stylized flowers are easy. They can be used in closely arranged rows as filling in a design, in single rows as a border, or broken apart to scatter and repeat over a larger area. The little “bugs” were fun to do, as was the snail. Designing them is something enjoyable you can do with your children or grandchildren, too. Some of the larger separate designs are attractive additions to babies' or children's clothing. You can apply these by using a chart and counting threads, by making your own transfer pattern (see the posts for October 6, 2013 and/or April 30, 2014), or by embroidering through waste canvas a removable needlepoint canvas that isn't interlocked. You pin or baste a piece of the waste canvas, somewhat larger then your design, loosely in the desired spot on the garment. Embroider the design as you usually would, not pulling your stitches too tight. When the design is finished, gently pull out each of the canvas threads. I like to steam-press the design afterward.

Have fun with Holbein!




"Unicorn", Holbein embroidery on gingham, framed under glass
"Unicorn", Holbein embroidery on gingham, framed under glass


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