Blackwork 101
Blackwork for Beginners

By Sorcha Fhionn inghean ui/Ruairc

There are thousands of books written about blackwork, the History of Blackwork and books that have loads of patterns for blackwork. For this reason I will not be delving into the detailed history or the multitude of different design stitches; this handout will be for those who are learning blackwork, not for those who already do lovely blackwork and who have moved on to other stitching techniques. Even though blackwork is a simple stitch to learn, some of the patterns and designs always seem to make it look hard and involved.

Blackwork was brought to England by Catherine of Aragon when she married King Henry VIII, and it was sometimes referred to as Spanish Stitch. Blackwork was used to decorate clothing and household furnishings. You can make a simple outlined design and leave the center of your motif empty or fill it in with more elaborate blackwork designs. But remember, for this, we are just working with the basics. There are other books you can get to learn more detailed blackwork designs.

What I am going to do here is to make it simple, easy and fun. I will be showing you three very basic stitches; back stitch, Holbein (double running) and cross stitch. They can be used alone or together to create a lovely blackwork piece.

Blackwork can be done on just about any type of material; even count linen, Aida, silks and other tightly woven materials. For starting out, you can use 14ct. or 18ct. Aida (you can get this at local craft and fabric stores). As you progress you can switch to 24ct., 32ct. linen, and even dress-weight linens.

For my designs I will be using black DMC floss, for three reasons; 1) it is affordable, 2) it is easily obtained and 3) it is washable. Blackwork is just that, embroidery done using black threads, usually on white background material. There are pieces in museums that are done in silks of different colors; red, green and blue. These are sometimes called red-work, green-work or blue-work but are still considered to be a form of blackwork. As you progress in your technique, you can switch to silk floss when you feel comfortable.

When you start a project it can be a good idea to use a "waste knot" to start your thread. Tie a knot in the end of your thread and push the needle down through the fabric from the right side, in an area several 3" to 4" away from where you will start stitching. Bring the needle back up in position for the first stitch and follow the pattern. Later you can snip off the knot; the excess thread will now be hanging on the backside of your work where you can fasten it off by threading your needle and slipping it under a few stitches.

If you already have stitches in place on your work you can slip the needle under a few stitches on the back of the work to anchor a new piece of thread. Always try to fasten off under an outline if possible. It will be less noticeable. If you are using fill-in stitching and you are reaching the end of your thread, check to see if you will reach the other side of the shape you are filling in. If not, fasten it off at the outline and use a new length.

Normally one strand is used for the filling patterns and maybe two for the outlines.


Cross stitch:

cross stitch

This photo shows a good way to learn how to cross stitch. Bring the needle up in the bottom left hole, reinsert it at the top right to create a diagonal stitch. Continue in this way across the row. To complete the stitches on the journey back, bring the needle up in the bottom right and take it back down through the top left hole.

Cross stitch in its simplest form is made by two bisecting diagonal stitches. It is extremely quick and easy to work usually on even weave fabrics. One rule remains constant, and that is, the top diagonals should always lie in the same direction.

After working a number of stitches you may find the thread is getting twisted. Just let the needle and thread dangle from your work for a moment or two and it will untwist itself.


Back stitch is an old and very adaptable stitch which can be used as a delicate outline. This stitch follows intricate curves well if the stitches are worked in small and an even manner in order to follow the flow of the curve. The front of the work is similar in appearance to Holbein stitch but, where Holbein stitch is quite flat, back stitch is slightly raised.


To start this stitch, bring the thread up from the back of the fabric on the line that you want to create. Make a small backward stitch through the fabric. Bring the needle through the fabric a little in front of the first stitch and still on the line. Pull the thread through the fabric. Make the second stitch backward, bringing the needle out a little in front of the second stitch and still on the line. Repeat this movement and continue sewing in such a manner along the line.


On the image above, which shows the backside of my work, you can see the difference between double running (on left) and backstitching (on right). See how much thicker the square on the right looks? On a finer fabric this can cause shadowing that may be visible from the front of your work.

Holbein (double running):

Double running has two main benefits; 1) it is reversible, so the back of your work will look the same as the front and 2) it uses less thread. Not to mention double running looks neater than backstitching.

Running stitch is the simplest and most basic of all stitches which can be used to build up patterns and texture. To work this stitch, simply pass the needle over and under the fabric. Traditionally the upper stitches are worked of equal length in an even regular manner.

double running

Stitch until you use about half of your thread and then go back in reverse direction coming up at the end on one stitch and going down at the beginning of your next stitch to make a solid line.

I try NOT to split my stitches (see photo below) as this will not produce a neat looking line. One trick I find helpful is to come up BELOW the first stitch and go down ABOVE the second stitch. It will look a little angled, but will produce a straighter looking line.

bouble running


This selection of books on blackwork will help you get started on your discovery of this lovely technique.

  • Blackwork Embroidery Patterns. Jane D. Zimmerman. Self-published 1975
  • Blackwork. Elizabeth Geddes & Moyra McNeill. Dover, New York 1974
  • Folio of Blackwork Patterns. Marion E. Scoular. Self-published undated
  • Blackwork. Marion Scoular. Leisure Arts #82 Libertyville, Illinois 1976
  • Blackwork. Mary Gostelow. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York 1976
  • Art of Blackwork Embroidery. Rosemary Drysdale. Scribner, New York 1975
  • Reversible Blackwork. Ilse Altherr. Self-published 1978
  • Exploring Blackwork. Rosemary Cornelius. Sinbad Series 1974
  • The Craft of Blackwork and Whitework. Erica Wilson. Scribner, New York 1973
  • Embroider Now. Helsie van Wyk. Perskor Publishing. Johannesburg, South Africa 1977
  • Blackwork & Holbein Embroidery. Ilse Altherr. Self-published, 1981
  • Blackwork. Joan Edwards. Dorking, Suny, England, Bayford Books 1980
  • Web sites:

    Blackwork -- An Introduction

    designs from 16th century sources

    Blackwork Embroidery Archives

    More 16th Century designs

    Period designs

    Blackwork Gallery

    double running double running double running double running

    My samples of blackwork pieces

    double running

    Last updated: 4/28/2009