An Elizabethan Blackwork Tutorial – Part One: Supplies and Tracing

A Happy New Year to you all.

Over the past few days my blog has seen quite a lot of traffic. This makes me very, very happy. Before I start off with this little embroidery tutorial, I would like to thank everyone who has read, liked, followed and commented on this blog. You are awesome guys. Your support motivates me even more to go through with blogging, even though I am still a relative novice to historical needlework. Thank you so much for it. :D

As a tiny new year’s goody, I have decided to write a tutorial for you. The idea for it I got after talking to Silvermedusa. She liked my plans of posting about embroidery on here, since she was interested in the topic but has not had the chance to try it out herself, yet. So, this tutorial is for her, and everyone else interested in doing some embroidery. It will show you how to make some simple Elizabethan blackwork embroidery using the double back-stitch.

In Part One, I will give you some background info on blackwork, tell you which supplies you will need and how you can trace your pattern onto the fabric. In Part Two, I will show you how to do the actual embroidery, using the double back-stitch. Since it is my first tutorial ever, please be gentle with me. ;)


A little background information

What is blackwork? Blackwork is a kind of embroidery that was especially popular in the Elizabethan period. It was used to decorate clothing as well as tapestries and other ornamental fabric works. Basically it is called blackwork because it is usually picked out in black thread. But the use of golden or coloured threads was also popular. Usually, the patterns consisted of line-draw-like imagery of flowers, fruits or braids that could be as simple or as intricate as you like. Below you can see a very gorgeous extant coif with elaborate black and gold work from the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Extant coif with black- and goldwork

Extant coif with black- and goldwork

How is that Regency? Well, it is not. ;) The Elizabethan era is just another historical period I am very fond of. And blackwork was what rekindled the love of embroidery I once had when I was a little girl. Last year, I made a coif and forehead cloth which I embroidered with a simple freestyle pattern of thistles and clovers. It was my first venture into historical embroidery. Here is a little peek of them. Sorry for the minimalistic view on the coif, but making selfies of the back of my head proved somewhat tricky. ;)

My forehead cloth and coif with freestyle blackwork.

My forehead cloth and coif with freestyle blackwork.

For your blackwork project, you will need:

  • A piece of fabric you want to embroider: I will be embroidering a table runner for my mum.
  • Embroidery thread, preferably black: The yarn I like best for this is purl cotton, size 5 or thinner. It is nice and shiny and gives the work a pretty, pearl-like complexion. Regular embroidery floss will do as well.
  • An embroidery hoop in the size of your choice.
  • Embroidery needles matching your fabric weight: For very delicate fabrics like muslin, it is best to use fine embroidery or small milliner’s needles which have a narrower eye less likely to rip biggish holes into the weave.
  • A pattern: For this tutorial I have picked a pattern of autumn leaves and acorns from The Blackwork Embroidery Archives. It is a sound resource to start with when you are just beginning. :) leaves

To trace your pattern, you need:

  • Tissue paper (a.k.a. tracing paper)
  • A pencil
  • Sticky tape (optional)
  • Sewing needle
  • Basting thread

Tracing the pattern onto the fabric:

Here I will outline the basic tracing paper method. You can use it for copying pretty much any simple line embroidery pattern, historical or modern. Of course, you can also use any other tracing method you like. Personally, I have always found this one the most easy-going, low-tech solution, especially for beginners. So I have decided to include it, just in case someone has never traced any embroidery patterns before. ;)

Step One

Step One.

Grab your pattern and put it on a flat surface, making sure it stays in place for tracing. I usually do that by carefully affixing it to the floor or table with a few bits of sticky tape.

Step Two

Step Two.

Put a piece of tissue paper over the pattern and start tracing through with your pencil. Tissue usually has a smooth and a papery side. I usually put the papery side up because it is easier to draw on. The tissue should be a bit bigger than your pattern so you can later baste it to your fabric. To make sure the paper does not run off, it should be held in place by tape or a weight as well.

Step Three.

Step Three.

Cut out the pattern piece, leaving enough of an edge for basting.

Step Four.

Step Four.

Place the pattern piece where you want the embroidery to go on the fabric. These leaves will later be in one corner of the table runner. For now, the tissue paper will stay on the fabric, but we will get rid of it when we are done with our embroidery.

Step Five.

Step Five.

Hand-baste the tissue paper to the fabric with your regular sewing needle. You will unpick these stitches again once you have finished embroidering. Make sure your pattern piece lies flat on the fabric and there is no scrunching from pulling through the basting thread.

And Ready To Go.

And Ready To Go.

That is pretty much it. Now you put the fabric into your hoop. Ideally it should be big enough to fit round the whole pattern. But try telling that to the four yards of skirt hem you might want to embroider at some point…. ;)

This was part one of my embroidery tutorial. I hope it was helpful and easy to follow. Once the pile of uni work here has gone away, I will get back to you with the second part where we will talk about the mysteries of the Elizabethan double back-stitch, which looks the same on both sides of the fabric.


Until then, all the best,



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