Focus on… blackwork

10 December 2020
Peaceful Wings by Emma Frith Emma’s Peaceful Wings project from Stitch issue 115 showcases blackwork in glorious technicolour.
Emma Frith explains how embroidery helped her overcome personal challenges and gives insight into the dark art of blackwork, along with a quick guide on how to get started with blackwork... perfect for beginners!

Apparently blackwork can be stitched in colour! Read on to find out more about Emma and this intricate embroidery technique… 

Emma Frith embroiderer

Please introduce yourself…

My husband is a Church of England vicar, so I live and work in a vicarage, where the dining room doubles as my studio. We live with our son and my trainee assistance dog, Lottie. As well as my embroidery work, I do children’s work in the church with the choir, youth group and Sunday school. I'm finishing off my Royal School of Needlework Diploma in Technical Hand Embroidery, taught by Tracy Franklin in Durham. In between work on my diploma assignments, being a mum and a vicar’s wife, I enjoy teaching day classes and designing embroidery kits, as well as taking on commissions.

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What was your first experience with needle and thread?

I've always had a strong urge to create and craft, tempered by an equally strong perfectionist streak that used to hamper and frustrate it. As a child, I drew and painted for hours alone and in private, but at school, art and textiles lessons were prescriptive and uninspiring and I never even connected them with my inner creative spirit. My first experience of embroidery was when I was given a little cross stitch kit by my grandmother. It immediately appealed, because it kept my inner perfectionist critic quiet, leaving me to craft in peace. 

How did things develop from there?

I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, so my crafts became a valuable daily refuge from pain. I expanded my horizons to include crochet, knitting and paper crafts, as well as sketching and constant doodling using zendoodle patterns. I was pleasantly surprised to find that perfectionism was now my friend – it enabled me to work patiently for the results I wanted. I found I was able to stitch and make, even draw and paint, better and better. 

I started to explore embroidery beyond cross stitch and when I designed and embroidered my husband’s ordination stole, a big piece of the jigsaw fell in to place. What had started out as a means to distract myself from chronic pain and constant injuries became an all-encompassing mission. 

What role has formal training played?

I started on the RSN certificate and diploma course with a big dose of impostor syndrome, but soon forgot it in the enjoyment of learning and stitching. By this time, my disability had worsened to the extent that I had to use a wheelchair and change my job as an NHS scientist. This would have been a devastating blow, had embroidery not already got me firmly in its grasp. 

What role does embroidery play in your life today?

Embroidery was something that could be adapted to accommodate my disability and it was something I could be good at, even on difficult days. Instead of feeling defeated, I found myself looking for ways to complete the transformation from scientist to full-time embroiderer. I love to lose myself in my design, as I feel free when I'm embroidering. EDS is always with me, but with an adapted workstation, Lottie (my trainee assistance dog) and some technical workarounds, I'm never happier than when I'm at my trestles.

Examples of blackwork diapers

Examples of blackwork diapers.

How inspiring! What is your take on blackwork as a technique?

Blackwork consists of areas of repeating patterns known as diaper patterns, lacy border designs, and sometimes simple outlined motifs such as stylised leaves, flowers, birds and animals, all worked in black thread on white fabric.

Scarletwork is the name given to the technique when it's worked in red thread. Gold thread is occasionally used to pick out details and highlights.

Modern blackwork uses many of the traditional diaper patterns in new ways – for example, to shade a detailed picture, using different patterns and densities of threads. Blackwork principles can even be applied to coloured thread. It's a surprisingly versatile technique.

“The patterns are not as complex as they look, they are simply a series of straight stitches.”

What is it about blackwork that you really enjoy?

Like many, my first exposure to blackwork was in the form of a kit, as a sampler design. I enjoyed working the kit, but until blackwork came up as a module requirement for my RSN diploma, it had never occurred to me to do anything other than simple samplers or decorative edges in blackwork.

When I was looking around for a design for my coursework, I realised the blackwork patterns could be used in a similar way to the cross-hatched shading used in copperplate etching or wood block printing. I chose a challenging design, a photograph of Jane Morris, for my subject. 

Jane Morris blackwork

Emma’s portrait of Jane Morris for her RSN Diploma Blackwork Module.

How did you break this complex image down into something more manageable?

I found that with a good range of silk threads it was possible to achieve really subtle, accurate shading, even for hands and faces. It completely changed the way I thought about blackwork. I was expecting it to be blocky and clumsy, but found it almost endlessly adaptable.

There are hundreds of combinations of stitches you can try, or make up your own. Controlling light and shade, simplicity and complexity, light and heavy thread gives you plenty to think about, but the patterns themselves are rhythmical, satisfying and particularly good for anyone troubled by an inner perfectionist! 

I really enjoy working in monochrome black – far from being restrictive, it's actually liberating to be able to shade a picture to life without having to juggle with colour. Having said that, I've also enjoyed projects like my giraffe kit using bright colours instead of black.

Colour giraffe blackwork by Emma Frith

Emma’s giraffe design.

How to get started with blackwork...

1. Choose the right fabric

Blackwork relies on counted threads, so it's essential that the fabric has an even weave – i.e. the same number of threads per inch left to right as it has up and down.

It also helps when you're counting threads if the holes are easy to see and the fabric is even and smooth without slubs. It's possible to use blockweave aida for some blackwork patterns, but it can be limiting if you want to reduce the scale of a diaper pattern, or add details using other techniques. 

Top tip! I like to use 36 count Edinburgh linen, but I use 28 count evenweave cotton blend in my kits, which most people find an easier starting point.

2. Use the right needle

Blackwork needs a blunt tapestry needle (I use a size 26) to work the patterns so that you don’t accidentally split the weave. I also have a size 9 or 10 embroidery/crewel needle handy for any backstitch or stem stitch outlines, or details worked in other embroidery stitches. 

Want to have a go yourself? Try Emma’s ‘Peaceful Wings’ in Stitch issue 115 or explore both traditional and reverse techniques with Jen Goodwin's stunning blackwork chess pieces in Stitch issue 128.

3. Select the right thread

The thread choice is design dependent, but for a big project, I use silk threads from Mulberry Silks and very fine twisted silks from Pipers in 2/20, 4/20 and 6/20. For a simpler piece, ordinary machine thread, stranded cotton embroidery thread, and Coton á broder 16 will give good results. 

4. Transfer the design the right way

The safest way to transfer an outline is with the ‘tack and tear’ method. 

  • Use a backing layer, such as a layer of white cotton or polycotton behind your linen/evenweave with the grains lined up. This isn’t necessary if you are just using stranded cotton, but the gossamer thin threads can get lost under the weave of the linen unless they are supported by a backing layer. It also stops any trailing threads showing through on the front and helps detailed patterns retain their shapes neatly. 

Top tip! An old bed sheet is a great source of fabric for the backing layer!

  • For larger projects (A4 and more), it's wise to iron both layers flat and use large diagonal tacking to hold them together while you frame up. 
  • Mount both layers into your embroidery frame or hoop and stitch through both. This backing layer helps you get a crisp pattern and a neat finish. The thin cotton also supports the thread in the centre of the hole. 

5. Build stitch patterns in the right order

It's usually neater to build the whole area of pattern one stitch at a time, rather than working each subunit separately. For example – put down a row of vertical stitches, then work back down the line adding the horizontal elements, then diagonals, until the pattern is finished. Working this way means you're not pulling the working thread around sharp angles on the back, as this can affect the way the stitch lies on the front. 

blackwork waffle stitch development

Development of a waffle stitch.

Any other top tips for those wanting to give blackwork a go?

  • Have a scrap of linen handy to try out any new patterns before working them on your main piece. 
  • You can increase the depth of a shaded area by using thicker thread, or by adding complexity to the pattern with extra stitches. 
  • To make an area lighter, use lighter threads, and remove some stitches from the pattern, effectively breaking it up. 
  • You can use negative space (with no stitches at all) to add an area of bright highlight.
  • Be careful with outlines – stitch patterns don’t cover the background 100%. So unless you intend to add a heavy stitched outline, remember pencil marks will show. 
  • It's better to start each new area with a new thread. Threads trailing on the back can show through on the front, especially the heavier black threads. 
  • Blackwork can be as formal or as relaxed as you make it, and it can be anything from a sampler to a detailed image worked from a photograph.
  • Make up your own diaper patterns! I find it easiest to use 3.3mm square dotted paper, with each of the dots corresponding to a hole on the fabric. 
  • Finally… have a go and prepare to get hooked! 

You can find Emma on Facebook as Emma Frith Embroidery or visit her website

Next, meet another talented embroider, Jen Goodwin, and learn about the beautiful embroidery technique, crewelwork!

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