Pomegranate Band

Pomegranate Band

Band of double-running stitch embroidery in a pomegranate design, worked in black sewing silk and synthetic gold on a linen ground with approximately 50 threads per inch, worked over two threads, intended for a 16th century-style man’s shirt.

The style classically associated with the term “blackwork” uses a design of scrolling flowers and/or leaves outlined with multiple types of stitches, filled in with small repeating (diaper) patterns, and worked primarily in black silk, but also using gold or silver threads and further embellished with spangles. However, books about blackwork usually include information about the closely related technique of double-running stitch (known then as Spanish stitch, and these days also called Holbein stitch), often treating it as just a variant, rather than as a separate form in itself. Since 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 in fact have been considered blackwork, although one done in red would not.

Whether Spanish stitch is in fact blackwork or not, it did exist prior to the classic Elizabethan style of blackwork, and is commonly considered to be the source from which that type of blackwork developed. Its introduction to England is usually ascribed to Katharine of Aragon, who came from Spain in 1501 to marry Arthur, the Prince of Wales, and when he died, eventually married his brother, Henry VIII. There is usually also a vague statement about the Spaniards acquiring this type of embroidery during the period of Moorish rule, although there is other evidence that it could have been introduced to Europe through Venetian trade with the Islamic world.

However it was first introduced, Spanish stitch spread rapidly and was worked throughout Western Europe in the 16th century. The earliest European patterns are similar to the Islamic patterns since they both use mostly straight stitches, avoiding diagonals. However, even the simplest Islamic designs have a certain elegance to them, whereas the European patterns can only be described as crude. 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 that I am aware of 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. One of the most common uses was on undergarments, especially at the neck and wrist of shirts and shifts.

The Pattern:
The pattern I chose for this was a reversing pomegranate band found in an SCA-published pamphlet which was the precursor to The New Carolingian Modelbook. While this pattern is a modern creation, I feel that it is very much in the late 16th century style. When I first looked at The Blackwork Embroidery Archives which seems to be a very popular website, I thought some of the patterns were nice, but there was something not quite right about them and I got more and more uncomfortable as I went through them. Finally I went looking for information on her sources, and found that they were all her own designs. Although there are elements taken from period sources, they are treated in modern style (and personally, I would not recommend them for SCA use). On the other hand, when I first looked through The New Carolingian Modelbook, I was going “That’s a nice pattern. That’s a nice pattern. Oh, that’s a really nice pattern. Where did she get it?” Surprisingly often, considering the small number of her own designs included, the answer to that question was that it was the author’s own creation. Of course, this is an aesthetic judgment, and others will undoubtedly disagree with me.

I did the embroidery a while ago, maybe a year after learning to do blackwork, and at that time all I knew was that “gold threads were used in blackwork”. I have since learned more, and know that metallic threads were probably not used in the Spanish stitch band style of blackwork. Couching has always been the favored method of handling metal threads, and even when passing threads got to be more common in the late 16th century, the preferred stitches were those such as plaited braid, which leave most of the (expensive) thread on the surface and are best suited to the scrolling style of blackwork.


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