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Blackwork and Goldwork Embroidery

3 September 2011

Five days ago I came across a painting of a German woman from the early 16th century. I was instantly drawn to her smock, and I decided I wanted to make it — and likely her gown, or something like it, as well. Here is the painting of Dorothea Meyer by Hans Holbein the Younger:

Dorothea Meyer (1516) by Hans Holbein

The smock has hearts and trellises embroidered around the collar, with actual smocking in the very front below that. I think it is just gorgeous!

So, having some linen and yellow thread handy, I thought I would try my hand at embroidery the design. I looked up embroidery techniques and learned about blackwork and the Holbein stitch, called that because you can see it in so many of his paintings. Then I dove right in and embroidered this:

Original painting on left, trellis embroidered with the Holbein stitch on the right

My stitches weren’t terribly even (it’s been like decades since I did any embroidery), but I was still encouraged by how it looked so I kept at it. I discovered that I should probably be counting my stitches based on the threads in the linen itself. So I counted how many threads were in my linen, and came up with 44. Yikes. Most linen that you would embroider on with counted stitches would be in the 22-28 range. I couldn’t see the holes well enough in my linen and I kept losing my place. So I went out and go some 14 thread waste canvas to put over my linen — this would be the size equivalent of a 28 thread linen embroidery as typically you would skip every other thread anyway. Then I tried again and got this:

Original painting on top; my embroidered heart and trellis pattern on the bottom

My stitches are much straighter now. And I was happy with this and ready to continue on to embroider the rest. But the next morning I was thinking about it, and how the stitches in my hearts were so obvious in comparison to the hearts in the painting. Then I began to think … what if this was blackwork-style embroidery with the Holbein stitch but rather actual goldwork?! Specifically the type of goldwork that uses small lenths of gold coils that are stitched (couched) onto the fabric. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that must be it. Dorothea was the wife of a bargomaster, a member of the Patriarch, and as such the sumptuary laws of the time would have allowed her to have gold on her clothing. A chat with Mistress Melisant confirmed my suspicions. So I ordered a book on embroidery, Royal School of Needlwork Embroidery Techniques, which has a chapter on goldwork. Once that arrives and I learn more, I will order some gold and couching thread and try again. I want to eventually enter this smock into an A&S competition, so I want to do it right!

After all this, I found I was still in the mood to embroider something. All my research into blackwork made me curious to try my hand at that. So I got out some green silk thread, some waste canvas, and the canvas cover of my packbasket from Pennsic. I drew a heart onto the canvas and jumped into the project. As I went along, I added some blackwork patterns from the 16th century — a sort of three-dimensional wall along the bottom of the heart (like the embroidery on Mrs. Pemberton’s collar, another 16th c. painting also by Holbein) and a flower motif above. Then I added on wings, basing their design off a 16th century pilgrim badge. The lettering is just block letters, and I don’t think it’s period — but I wanted my name on my basket cover, so there it is. Here is the finished embroidery:

My First Blackwork Project: A Winged Heart

By no means perfect, but I really like it! I definitely got better as I went along. Putting beeswax on my thread, which I did about halfway through, made a huge difference in how often my threads got knots. Here is the basket so you can see the size of the heart on it:

My packbasket with the embroidered canvas cover

It took me about a day to embroider this. And now I want to do more. I bought some 28 thread count linen at Michaels today, and if I used that I wouldn’t need the waste canvas and I believe I could make straighter lines. Perhaps I could make an embroidered coif!

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