by Mathilde Eschenbach

Historical Background

Islamic Embroidery (1250-1500):
Double-running stitch embroidery seems to have been fairly common in the Middle East at least as early as the 13th century. Most of the surviving pieces are from Egypt, which has an excellent climate for preserving textiles. However, we know it was not limited to just Egypt, since an example of this style was found with the mummified remains of some Maronite Christians in Lebanon. When it became popular in Europe, the style was always associated with Spain, suggesting that it made its way to Spain at some point during Arab rule, and from there, it spread to the rest of Europe.

The Middle-Eastern style rarely used diagonal stitches. Some patterns were 2-dimensional repeats that could be extended indefinitely in all directions, but most were bands that ranged from very simple to extremely complex. Lozenges, pinwheels, large S's and Z's, eight-pointed stars, and written inscriptions were all popular elements. The pattern is often created by filling in all the space around it with stitching, and the design area is either left blank, or filled in with drawn or cutwork, or with pattern darning.

Most of the pieces are fragments, and it is difficult to tell what they were used for. However, they generally seem to be clothing of one sort or another - tunics or shirts, and the ends of sashes (or possibly turbans). Although the embroidery seems to have been a cheap form of decoration, used by those who could not afford silk brocades, it was still valued enough to be reused, since there are examples of fragments pieced together to make a child's garment and doll clothing.

Spanish Stitch (1500-1700):
Spanish stitch was worked throughout Western Europe in the 16th century. The earliest European patterns are similar to the Islamic patterns since they also use mostly straight stitches, avoiding diagonals. However, the patterns are much cruder. These early simple stepped patterns were widely published in the pattern books that began appearing around this time in Italy, Germany and France. In fact, the first use of the term Spanish stitch is in the introduction to Peter Quentel's 1527 publication, Eyn new kunstlich boich, where he mentions "Spansche Stiche" as one of the possible methods of working his patterns. As time went on, the designs became much more elaborate. Unlike the Arabic style, European patterns began to make heavy use of diagonal stitches as they became more complex. In addition to pattern books and surviving pieces, Spanish stitch can be seen in portraits from Spain, England, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Much of the time, Spanish stitch was the only one used in an item, but on occasion it could be combined with other stitches. One unusual piece is a handkerchief or cover that has a border worked in a combination of double-running (or backstitch) and cross stitch, and a center that is entirely filled with a Hebrew verse, using the same stitches to form the letters. Also, this type of embroidery could be used to establish the outline of an area, and then be covered over with a different stitch such as braid stitch or detached buttonhole stitch. This can be clearly seen on the Jane Bostocke sampler where both stages of the embroidery are shown.

Spanish stitch seems to have been used on almost any item made of linen. There are many examples on undergarments, especially at the neck and wrist of shirts and shifts. Other types of clothing include Italian aprons, German cap veils and Swiss dress bands. Pillows and sheets were also embroidered with Spanish stitch, as were handkerchiefs.

There are only a few 16th-century samplers surviving, and two of them have large amounts of this style of embroidery, although only one of them uses Spanish stitch while the other uses backstitch. During the 17th century, it dropped out of use as a form of decoration; however, it continued to be used on samplers, being very popular as a technical exercise.

Blackwork (1550-1650):
In the 16th century, blackwork seems to have been a generic term that referred to any embroidery done in black thread on a white ground. A Spanish stitch piece done in black would have been considered blackwork, while one done in red would not. However, the style classically associated with the term uses a design of scrolling flowers and/or leaves and mixes together multiple types of stitches, worked primarily in black silk, but also using gold or silver threads and sometimes further embellished with spangles.

The flowers and leaves are outlined in a variety of heavier stitches such as stem, chain and coral, while the scrolling vines and stems are often done in the very popular plaited braid stitch. The outlined portions are then filled in with diaper patterns (small, repeating patterns that fill in the whole area). Some of these fillings are continuous, and can be worked in double-running stitch. However, since the rest of the embroidery is not worked in reversible stitches, the piece as a whole will not be either. Also, since many of the diaper patterns aren't continuous, they can't be worked reversibly. Since this style is typically used for cushion covers and lined clothing such as coifs and sleeves, it doesn't matter.

There is one interesting subgroup, which while not reversible, can be worked so that the same pattern appears on both sides, but shifted or rotated in some way. Several of these appear on a cushion cover at the Chicago Museum of Art. This embroideress also used variations of the same pattern, an approach which is frequently found in modern blackwork, but rare in period.

A slightly later variant imitates the shading seen on woodcuts and etchings popular at the time. There were two possible ways of doing this. One was to use speckling stitch ( short, detached stitches) worked along the inside of the design, varying the density as appropriate. The quick and dirty method used long and short stitch with a two-ply thread made of one strand of white and one of black.

Blackwork was common in England for about a century, and many pieces survive to this day. Some of the items that survive or can be seen in portraits include gloves, skirt openings (the "forepart"), sleeves, jackets, women's coifs, men's nightcaps and cushion covers. Oddly enough, while Spanish stitch was spread throughout Europe, I have never seen a piece of this type from any other country.

There was a revival of Elizabethan-style blackwork in the 20th century. Modern blackwork typically combines the use of diaper patterns with the concept of shading by selecting the fillings for their density. Sometimes the outlining stitches are eliminated entirely.

    Sources for Patterns:
  • Bassée, Nicolas. German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery: A Facsimile Copy of Nicolas Bassée's New Modelbuch of 1568, with an introduction by Kathleen Epstein. Austin: Curious Works Press.
    ISBN 0-9633331-4-3.
    A pattern book from the 16th century that includes some typical examples of the stepped patterns common at the time.

  • Carroll-Mann, Robin (as Brighid ni Chiarain of Tethba). "Some 16th Century Border Patterns for Blackwork Embroidery," Tournaments Illuminated, No. 92, Fall 1989, pp. 34-35.

  • Epstein, Kathleen. An Anonymous Woman: Her Work Wrought in the 17th Century. Austin, Texas: Curious Works Press, 1992.
    ISBN 0-9633331-1-9.
    Detail photographs of a single sampler, mostly in Spanish stitch, with charts and a photo of a reproduction for each pattern.

  • Pesel, Louisa F. Historical Designs for Embroidery. London: B T Batsford Ltd., 1956. Republished by the Counted Thread Society of America, 3305 S. Newport Street, Denver, Colorado 80224.
    Many double-running stitch designs, mostly from 17th century samplers.

  • Salazar, Kim Brody (as Ianthe d'Averoigne). The New Carolingian Modelbook: Counted Embroidery Patterns from before 1600. Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Outlaw Press, 1995.
    ISBN 0-9642082-2-9.
    If you can still find a copy of this book, grab it, and if not, keep your fingers crossed that the author can find a new publisher. This book has gorgeous charts for cross-stitch and double-running stitch embroidery. Most of these are either done from period artifacts or from pattern books, however there are a few that are her own design. Her feel for period style is so incredible that I never realized that any of those were modern until I looked at the description of the design to see where she had found such a lovely piece. After the first year this was in print, she received no payments. When someone tried selling photocopies of the book and she objected, she was told that it was okay, the author was dead. There is some good news, however: I understand that she is working on a second volume of patterns.

Selected Bibliography:
  • Anderson, Ruth. Hispanic Costume 1480-1530. New York:

  • Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München. Elizabethan Embroidery: Englische Textilkunst aus der Zeit Shakespeares. München: Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, 1964.
    Catalog for an exhibit in Germany. Text in German, many of the pieces were loaned from the V&A, so they show up in other sources, but there are a few things that I've not seen anywhere else. Useful feature: a stitch glossary with diagrams.

  • Browne, Clare and Wearden, Jennifer. Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1999.
    ISBN 185177-309-6
    This includes a Mamluke (14th - 15th century) double-running stitch sampler, the famous Jane Bostocke sampler (dated 1598), and the late 16th century Italian sampler that is the source for some of the most beautiful patterns in the New Carolingian Modelbook. Also includes many 17th-century Spanish stitch samplers, and some with filling patterns for blackwork. Gorgeous photos, with some incredible close-ups.

  • Digby, George Wingfield. Elizabethan Embroidery. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.
    Just about the best book available on the subject. Many photographs, nearly all in black and white. Excellent text, with many quotes from period sources.

  • Edwards, Joan. The Second of Joan Edwards' Small Books on the History of Embroidery: Black Work. Dorking, Surrey, England: Bayford Books, 1980.
    ISBN 0-907287-00-X.
    Just a small pamphlet, but an excellent introduction to the history of Elizabethan blackwork.

  • Ellis, Marianne. Embroideries and Samplers from Islamic Egypt. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2001.
    By far the best book I've seen on medieval Islamic embroideries.

  • Epstein, Kathleen. "Concernynge the Excellency of the Nedle Worcke Spanisshe Stitche," Piecework Vol. III, No. 1, Jan/Feb 1995, pp. 78-83.
    Good article on history of Spanish stitch. (Back issues available from the publisher at

  • Geddes, Elisabeth and McNeill, Moyra. Blackwork Embroidery. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976.
    ISBN 0-486-23245-X.
    A little history, mostly focuses on modern revival style, but cheap and readily available.

  • Gostelow, Mary. Blackwork. London: B T Batsford Ltd., 1976.
    ISBN 0-7134-4621-8.
    Excellent book that again focuses on modern revival blackwork, but with a nice section on history. Well-illustrated.

  • Hofer, Hans. Ain new Formbuech'len der weyssen Arbeyt. Nieuwkoop, Netherlands: Miland Publishers, 1968. (Facsimile of the 1545 edition published in Augsburg)

  • Levey, Santina. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick Hall Textiles. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
    ISBN 0-8109-6353-1.
    Shows one Spanish stitch piece in red and green - but if you are interested in 16th century embroidery, this book will show you a whole range of styles neglected in books that focus just on blackwork.

  • Mayer-Thurman, Christa C. Textiles in the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992.
    ISBN 0-8109-3856-1 (hardback) 0-86559-094-X (paperback).
    Nice blackwork panel, clearly showing the filling patterns, and a coif.

  • Speirs, Gill and Quemby, Sigrid. A Treasury of Embroidery Designs: Charts and Patterns from the Great Collections. London: Bell and Hyman Ltd, 1985.
    ISBN 0-7135-2056-1
    Book of projects based on historical embroideries, including a couple of blackwork pieces. Pictures of the original pieces as well as the projects.

  • Thomas, Thelma K. Textiles from Medieval Egypt, A.D. 300-1300. Pittsburgh, PA: The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990. (Copyright held by The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute).
    ISBN 0-911239-20-0.

  • Walder, John. All Colour Book of Henry VIII. London: Octopus Books Limited, 1973.
    ISBN 0-7064-0232-4.
    Lots of portraits, by Holbein and others, from the time when Spanish stitch first exploded in popularity.

On-Line Sources:
  • The Atlantian Arts and Sciences site has links to much information about historical embroidery, including blackwork and other Elizabethan forms, although there is starting to be a significant amount of link rot.
  • The Atlantian Embroiderer's Guild site has a page of blackwork filling patterns.
  • This site has three Spanish stitch patterns from 16th century portraits. But note that if you look at the width of the embroidery on the sleeve from the Bess of Hardwick portrait, it is obvious that the embroidery is not the same as in the other two portraits, although it can be charted. To me it seems most likely to be flat, couched cord, but there are several other possibilities, such as weaving or embroidery with multiple rows of stem stitch.
  • The Blackwork Embroidery Archives seems to be a very popular site. Although there are some nice designs on the site, they are very obviously modern, and I would not recommend using them for SCA purposes.
  • Chronicle of designing and embroidering an Elizabethan-style blackwork coif.
  • A pattern for the Jane Seymour Spanish stitch cuff.
  • My own Medieval Egyptian Counted-Thread Embroidery page is the only one I know of devoted to the subject.

Last updated 23 August 2002

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