Sunday, October 6, 2013

Basic Blackwork, Part 1

(...and now, we return you to our regularly scheduled tutorial series...)

Mouse and tulip blackwork
Student blackwork of a mouse and tulip
Blackwork embroidery may be best known from Hans (the Younger) Holbein's 16th century paintings of English nobles from the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. (Don't look at the paintings, yet; they might discourage you from trying a technique that is really fun!) What we are going to do this time is strictly 21st Century, leaning toward making pictures, pillows, quilt blocks, place mats, etc. The original 16th century blackwork was done in black silk and gold thread on white linen. We are going to start with black embroidery floss on quarter-inch checked gingham in your choice of color:  you will need a half-yard of gingham and an equal amount of plain backing fabric -- muslin, interfacing, or something similar. Later, we'll progress to other fabrics and a variety of threads, flosses, and yarns.

Those of you who have become familiar with my work through these blogs know that I like naturalistic depictions. But I also have a whimsical streak, fostered by a lifetime of teaching children and teenagers. Blackwork is a medium which allows and encourages me to be playful.

Black Cat Blackwork
Black Cat Blackwork, modeled on a friend of ours
We are going to work with designs that can easily be divided into sections. The sections are then filled in with a wide range of patterns made (like counted cross-stitch) with short, straight stitches. These repeating patterns are sometimes called diaper patterns. I make my own designs and hope you will try to do so -- eventually, if not now. A good source of simple outline designs is a child's coloring book. A group of panels like the cat and the snail will make an endearing quilt for a child. These simple coloring book designs are perfectly acceptable when you are making projects for yourself and your household or for gifts. If you plan to sell your work at craft shows or in shops, however, do not use any copyrighted materials in your designs. The legal complications can be awful. I will continue to give you suggestions in these blogs for creating your own original designs.

Black Cat Blackwork detail
Black Cat Blackwork closeup, showing pattern detail
Shading in blackwork is done by increasing the density of the stitches. The simpler the pattern, the fewer the stitches and the more background that shows through. These patterns are the lightest in value. As more stitches are added, the pattern becomes more complex and the value becomes darker. Look at the cat done on pink “baby check” gingham. See how the front leg on the far side of the body appears to be darker than the front leg on the near side?

Now you are going to design a project of your own so that you will be all ready to start when this instruction is continued in the next tutorial blog. Choose a simple outline pattern like the black cat or my silly snail and trace it onto quarter-inch graph paper. Or, make up your own design (or use something one of your children drew) and draw it on the graph paper. You should be able to divide your design into at least 6 sections (see the 7 sections on the black cat). Decide where these sections will be. Draw heavy lines in between them on your graph.

Downloadable Diaper Pattern Chart
Downloadable Diaper Pattern Chart
Now download the diaper pattern chart and print it out. I inked the patterns freehand without a ruler, so they are a little irregular, but you should be able to follow them without any difficulty. Each separate line in a pattern represents a single short, straight stitch and each square on the graph paper represents a square or check on the gingham. Each diaper pattern can be used horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.

Notice how some patterns appear very light, while some are medium in value and others are much darker. Choose a different pattern for each section of your outline. At least one should be very light (see the cat's stomach) and at least one should be very dark (see the cat's front leg on the far side of its body). Copy your chosen designs in the sections of your outline. (You don't need to copy my choices; make your own.) Work all the way to each bordering line, even if it means you can only show part of a stitch. Once your chart is filled in to your satisfaction, you may want to go over it in ink to make it easier to read --- but this is not required. Be sure to draw in the horizontal and vertical centering lines, preferably in another color.

Silly Snail outline and transfer copy
Silly Snail outline and copy in transfer pencil
Want an easy way to transfer your outline to your fabric? Make a hot-iron transfer. Trace your outline on tracing paper with a hot-iron transfer pencil. These red pencils are made by several companies. I use Aunt Martha's, 2 to a package for $2.99. Each pencil will make many transfers. Keep the pencil point sharp and go over the lines firmly until they look dark. Cut and press a piece of quarter-inch checked gingham at least two inches larger on all sides than your outline design. Pin your transfer pattern (red-penciled side down) to the gingham, centering it with the checks. Press the transfer pattern on the back with a hot, dry iron (no steam). Press hard and go back and forth several times, but don't scorch the paper. It takes at least 5 seconds to get a good transfer. Unpin one corner and lift it carefully. Peek under it to see if your lines transferred. If not, re-pin it in the same place and iron over it until they do. Remember that your picture will appear reversed on the fabric, so avoid lettering or anything that looks “wrong” if reversed. The red lines will wash out of the fabric with warm water and a mild detergent once your project is finished.

Snail outline with stitch patterns added
Silly Snail outline with diaper (stitch) patterns added
Whether or not you make a transfer pattern, press your gingham and the material you plan to use to back it. Baste them together around the edges. Run a colored basting stitch through the horizontal and vertical centers of the gingham. I use embroidery floss to do this, so that it will show up on J. D.'s photos, but you can use sewing thread. (See Easy Cross-stitch on Gingham, August 26). Assemble scissors, one or more large-eyed needles, and a few skeins of black embroidery floss (at least 4) and you'll be ready to begin. For those of you who want further instructions and more patterns, we will have those for you in a few days. You will need to refer to your design chart or the diaper pattern chart as you work.

To download the simple diaper pattern chart, or the Silly Snail outline, simply click on the links in this sentence or on the appropriate picture above. Happy designing!


Model for Black Cat Blackwork
Our model for the Black Cat Blackwork takes a break

 Creative Commons LicenseThis post by Annake's Garden is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Incredible, I love the detail of the cat! I have two boys, but they're gray!

    1. I'm glad you liked the blackwork cat. My model, Katana, is a rescue cat, one of a litter of four identical black kittens found at a garbage dump. Now thirteen years old, three of the four are still happy and healthy in their separate homes. I did the picture on pink because it is her favorite color. Whenever I spread out a selection of fabrics, posterboard, colored paper, etc., she pulls out the pink ones and sits on them


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