Blackwork embroidery – A beginner’s guide

Blackwork embroidery is a type of counted thread embroidery with geometric looking patterns done with Holbein stitch or double running stitch; as the name suggests it is mostly done on white  even-weave linen with black silk thread in a Double Running or Holbein Stitch. Occasionally couching or stitching in red was added.

This work dates back to centuries but became very popular when Catherine of Aragon, the Queen of England brought this beautiful work to England from Spain and it caught the fancy of the aristocratic ladies in England.( It is also called spanish work) The geometric designs of the blackwork fascinated the ladies of the times and they used it to embellish their elaborate gowns – especially the sleeves, collars and bodices.

The geometric patterns of blackwork gave a beautiful symmetry to blackwork designs.

In counted thread embroidery stitches are worked over a counted number of threads. This will create a uniformity in stitches which is very appealing.Other counted thread embroideries are cross stitch, herringbone stitch, queen stitch etc. 

The stitch which is used in this work is known as Holbein stitch. This stitch is named after the painter Hans Holbein in whose painting this work is seen a lot. His paintings had characters wearing gowns with this embroidery and it seemed to look like lace.


The peculiarity of Holbein stitch is that it is reversible. You can work the blackwork embroidery from the front of the fabric or the back and it will look the same.

Other than the double running stitch, some other stitches are also used in Blackwork embroidery- Chain stitch, split stitch and stem stitch. Other than the black coloured thread, blackwork is done with single bright coloured thread as well. Red, blue green are popularly used to do blackwork designs

You can use blackwork embroidery patterns to Embellish and decorate your home accessories and garments; you can aslo frame this work for hanging, just like you do the cross stitch embroidery works

Thread a tapestry needle with embroidery floss; “How many strands?” will depend on what effect you want.You can use silk, cotton and metallic threads.

Colour of the thread – Earlier only black thread was used but you can use any thread you want. One solid bright coloured thread against a pale coloured fabric is preferred for a vivid look to the design

How to do Blackwork embroidery

You need an even weave fabric to do this embroidery work. Aida works really well, so do Linen. It should be cut with atleast 3 inch margin all around. Use any of the fabric edge finishes outlined here to prevent fraying.

You can do this work on uneven weave fabrics also, provided you use waste canvas on top of the fabric. Waste canvas dissolves in water and can be taken off after the work is done.

Stretch your fabric on a hoop ( You can skip this)


You can make the outline of the design in back stitch and then fill the inside with the Holbein stitch. The work is done over two threads on even weave fabric.

Start the filling work from the center of the fabric. To find the center you can fold it crosswise and lengthwise by half and mark the center point


In case you are working on a premade clothing ( like a napkin or baby bib), ensure that you donot have knots in the back of the fabric; You can finish the work by stitching small straight stitches in between the  work and the fabric several times before the thread is cut. 

Checkout this site for some free downloadable designs of blackwork embroidery . Checkout this site with similar patterns

More reading :Rosemary Drysdale  The Art of Blackwork Embroidery.  

Elisabeth and McNeill Geddes  Blackwork Embroidery.  

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