Blackwork in History

A lifetime ago – or at least it seems as though it was – a few months before the pandemic locked down the world, I was on a holiday in one of my favourite places in the world – Scotland. My family ancestry is Scottish, and Scotland calls to me. Add to that the precious time spent visiting there with my daughter, and it is a very special place.

We love to tour castles and Stirling Castle is one of our favourites. We were lucky enough to be visiting there on a day when historical interpreters in fabulous costumes were onsite. It’s absolutely the best way to learn some of the history of a place, and so much fun!

Queens gardens Stirling Castle
Queens gardens Stirling Castle

From a laundress we learned a little about medieval clothing, and the bit about dyes was of particular interest to me. Back in the day, clothing was dyed a variety of colourful hues with plants, vegetables, lichens and berries. The peasant class had access to common plant-based dyes and the wealthier classes had access to expensive dyes like indigo. Since true black dye was expensive to make, black dyed clothing in Elizabethan times became a symbol of wealth and status. Servants attired in black meant they had wealthy masters.

Medieval laundress

The laundress told us that the royal embroderer was onsite that day, so we hurried to find her. She was a delight to talk to! Meeting her was the highlight of my day. She showed us the simple blackwork embroidery pieces she’d been working on.

Blackwork ornament
Blackwork embroidery

I thought that I knew quite a bit about blackwork embroidery, but that day she taught me so much more. I learned the practical use of blackwork stitching on clothing – it helped to make the cloth sturdier so it would last longer, especially collars and cuffs which endure more wear and tear.

Blackwork was also decorative, and not just stitched in black – colourfully embroidered panels and bedclothes added beauty to the plain stone walls and rooms. Embroidered banners added a festive flair to parades.

There are a couple of methods of stitching blackwork embroidery, the double running stitch and a simple back stitch. Today, there is a belief that traditional blackwork is always double sided, the pattern worked so that the design shows on both sides of the fabric – this is not true. Banners needed to have a design on both sides, so a double running stitch was used to accomplish this. This was also a practical stitch – because the pattern would be traced onto linen with chalk crayon and then stitched, it was easy to smudge the chalk – the double running stitch allowed the design to be quickly outlined, and then filled in with the returning stitch. These patterns commonly used simple line designs such as large flowers and vines.

Traditional blackwork was also stitched in geometric designs, in a repeating pattern. These patterns could be one sided, stitched with a back stitch, or if the stitcher worked carefully with a double running stitch, the design could be mirrored on both sides of the fabric. These geometric designs are what we commonly see today in modern blackwork patterns, and both methods of stitching them are equally rooted in history.

Stirling Castle was not the only historical site that we visited that trip, but the memory stands out because of all that I learned there. I can’t wait to go back to Scotland, and do some more exploring!

First though, as soon as travel opens up again, I will be flying to Australia for a long overdue visit with my son and daughter-in-law. They were only a couple of weeks away from a visit home to Canada that had to be cancelled when the pandemic lockdowns started. It’s now been four years since I’ve seen them, far too long! We have planned many scenic trails to hike, and sunny beaches to walk along – all of which will be so memorable because of the company.

View from a plane

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.