Blackwork Basics

The striking contrast of black stitching on white fabric has captivated stitchers for hundreds of years. From blackwork designs stitched on clothing during the 15th century to the more recent cross-stitch creations, this stunning style is an exciting technique to explore. If you know how to work backstitches and straight stitches, then moving into blackwork is a small step.

Getting Started

Blackwork is geometric in design, which makes spotting mistakes very easy. Choose a simple pattern to start. Find a spare scrap of fabric, thread up, and dive in. Follow the pattern carefully—changing even a single line can alter the whole look of a pattern. Experiment by using one or more strands in the same pattern. Also make sure you are working in good light and, if necessary, use a lamp and magnifying lens.

Materials & Tools

Fabric: Choose your fabric with care. Blackwork is usually worked on evenweave, but many designs can be worked on aida, especially if there are no split stitches. If you are doing blackwork for the first time, this may be an easier fabric to work on because of its block weave. Evenweave in 28-ct. is typically used for blackwork, but 25-ct. fabrics can also be used. Just remember to allow more material if using a lower count fabric. White is not always an easy fabric to work on because it is bright and can create a “glare” effect. Consider alternative colors. Off white, cream, and ecru cause less strain on the eyes, and blackwork looks just as impressive on pastels.

Needles: Choose a needle you can see to thread. Numbers 24 and 26 tapestry needles are usually used because they are blunt and do not split the fabric, but use a larger needle if necessary.

Threads: Blackwork does not have to be black! Maroon, red, navy, green, and variegated threads produce beautiful results. Instead of stitching the whole design in one color, try experimenting by stitching with a few different colors.

 Tips & Techniques

  • Start in the middle of the pattern and work outward, as it helps to place the work in the right position on the fabric and is easier to hold.
  • If tacking lines are used to mark the center of the pattern, always use light threads. Dark threads often leave traces behind when the tacking is removed.
  • Weave threads through the back of the embroidery as you stitch.
  • Avoid taking threads across open areas. When the final piece is framed, these lines of thread will show through on the front of your work.
  • Hold your work up to the light occasionally to see if you have any stray threads. Weave in threads rather than use knots, which may unravel.