An introduction to whitework embroidery

07 January 2021
Whitework embroidery by Lauren Yeager Whitework embroidery by Lauren Yeager.
Wondering what whitework embroidery is? Take an in-depth look at the wonderful world of whitework embroidery starting with an overview of this beautiful technique, followed by an interview with professional embroiderer, Carol Leather and top tips from Lauren Yeager.

What is whitework?

According to Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia, whitework is a general term for white embroidery on white material. 

Various types of embroidery are involved under the general umbrella of whitework, including drawnwork, pulled threadwork, cutwork, needle lace, appliqué, netting, marcramé, candlewicking, shadow work and tambour work. Whitework may be done on coarse to fine fabrics, ranging from opaque linen to net. It relies on a stark contrast between light and dark with stitches to provide surface texture. 

The three main techniques used in whitework are: 

  • Openwork
  • Cutwork
  • Needle lace 

The main stitches used include:

  • Satin
  • Chain
  • Back
  • Stem
  • Herringbone

Openwork is particularly interesting as it requires the manipulation or removal of threads to create a pattern – hardanger is included in this category.

Ilke Cochranes Gorgeous Garden whitework hardanger

'Gorgeous Garden' by Ilke Cochrane using whitework and hardanger techniques from Stitch issue 116.

Embroiderers all over the world have produced beautiful whitework in many distinctive styles, often combining several techniques in the same piece. For example, in China, whitework using small knot stitches has been found dating back thousands of years. 

A key type of whitework comes from Ayrshire in Scotland – usually worked on a fine white muslin in white thread, it incorporated both single and double cutwork, with needlepoint fillings, pierced and stiletto work and embroidery in satin stitch and French knots. The best examples of this work will have the front side indistinguishable from the back (Victorian Embroidery: An Authoritative Guide).

Find out more in Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia by Catherine Amoroso Leslie (Greenwood Press, 2007). 

Enjoying learning about whitework embroidery? Discover more embroidery techniques!

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An interview with Carol Leather

Carol Leather headshot

Professional embroiderer Carol Leather is an expert in many embroidery techniques, including whitework (you can find one her projects in Stitch issue 115!). We spoke to her about her experience with whitework and asked what advice she could give to the beginner whiteworker.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a country girl at heart. I was born in Hertfordshire and moved to Cambridgeshire shortly after getting married, due to my husband’s job. We’ve lived in the same rural village for about 35 years. As well as needlework I love all aspects of country life, and am often out with my camera taking images of the wildlife sharing this part of the country with us. My photos are an inspiration for my embroidery, as well as my pencil drawing, which I also enjoy.

How did you get into stitching? 

I’ve enjoyed stitching since my childhood days. My grandmother had boxes of iron-on transfers which I loved looking through and choosing from. We’d then choose thread colours and she would teach me basic stitches. 

Framed whitework embroidery by Carol Leather

Framed whitework embroidery by Carol.

When I reached secondary school, my friend introduced me to blackwork and after that I wanted to try as many different techniques as possible. Once a week we had a needlework lesson and I clamoured to be allowed to embroider, but the teacher said only if I made at least one item of clothing first. I complied unwillingly, but the red poplin skirt I made was never worn! 

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How did you go about turning stitching into a career?

My first income came from crochet actually. I made little dogs one Christmas and sold them to my school friends. I made a fortune (to me) that year. After that came a stream of craft fairs where I made and sold fur fabric toys and puppets successfully for a few years. 

However, I was diagnosed with asthma and the fur in the air wasn’t helping my breathing so I had to sell my industrial sewing machine and rethink. I took up cross stitch but it was difficult back then to find patterns that appealed to me. So, I started designing my own and took the finished items to craft fairs, only to discover that, not only other people loved the designs, but wanted to stitch them themselves. 

I was friendly with a lady who attended lace fairs and she suggested I design a picture of a lacemaker at her pillow. She said I could then sell the kits for the design at the big Christmas event that was coming up. I made up 25 kits, expecting to be left with at least 20 of them after the two-day event. Instead, I had to come home the first night and make up extra as they all sold!

Where do you sell you work?

My kits are now sold on the show circuit in the UK and Europe by the retailer Classic Stitches. I also sell the charts as downloads from my website…

What really inspires your art?

The natural world is where I get most of my inspiration, from things I see locally and further afield. I also love the Christmas season so a number of my designs reflect that.

Can you tell us about your whitework? Why choose this style in particular?

I love the crispness of white stitching on white fabric. The geometric nature intrigues me too, although I relish the challenge of creating figurative work in a hardanger style. As often items worked in hardanger are practical rather than just ornamental, it fulfils my urge to “create something useful”. 

Whitework embroidered cushion by Carol Leather

Whitework embroidered cushion by Carol.

Do you have a piece of whitework art that you’re most proud of?

Each new one I design and stitch is my favourite, until I complete the next!

Any disaster moments that you have managed to turn around?

I’ve not really had any disasters, but I do have a funny story of an accident that happened. At one of the first big shows I attended I finished a hardanger design just a few days before the event. My framer promised to get it ready so that I could take the framed piece with me and, true to his word, he managed it. I took a quick glimpse and loved what I saw. 

It wasn’t until day three of the show that someone commented on the piece: “I normally do my four-sided stitch the other way around so that you see the squares on the front of the work.” I looked closer and realised that it had been framed with the wrong side of the work showing! How had I missed that? I took comfort in that the back of my work must have been so neat that neither the framer nor I had spotted the error previously.

Is there a crafty tool that you can’t live without? 

I love my little magnets. I have one on each side of the fabric so they hold each other in place, and they make an ideal parking spot for my needle when I need to put it down for a moment.

How to get the best results in your whitework embroidery

And finally, keep these excellent top tips in mind from textile artist, Lauren Yeager...

Lauren Yaeger headshot

  • There are multiple kinds of whitework. In my magnolia (shown below), I used pulled thread techniques whereby you pull the threads to create open spaces. The bars use drawn techniques, where you're removing threads or ‘drawing them out’.
  • Select a design with large open areas for your stitching to work best. I prefer to work on a slate frame to keep my work as taut as possible. This helps when you’re pulling on your threads, so the tension is even and your open areas stay consistent in shape.
  • Thread condition is very important – don’t use too long lengths or your thread will lose its sheen and twist.
  • Steady, dry hands are also key! Oily hands and residues will stain both fabric and thread, so keeping them as dry as possible will help maintain your materials.
  • No tired eyes when it comes to this form of embroidery! You need to be alert and concentrate hard with whitework embroidery – it can be very difficult to correct a mistake when moving and removing threads, so be wide awake and plan out your work well.

Whitework embroidery magnolia by Lauren Yaeger

When you succeed with whitework, it's absolutely beautiful – elegant and so neat. If you enjoy counted embroidery, love linen, or simply want to experiment with an entirely new form of embroidery, whitework is definitely the technique for you!

Ready to be inspired by another stunning technique? Explore our introduction to blackwork.

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