Simple blackwork embroidery shading techniques

Blackwork embroidery, a counted thread embroidery, is often stitched with black thread on a white evenly woven fabric, but adding some color can really make the design stand out.

This embroidery technique is sometimes called Spanish blackwork or Elizabethan embroidery.

The pears in this article, will allow us to explore how the addition of extra stitches within a pattern can add depth and shading, as can using more strands of floss in the needle.

If you haven't tried blackwork before, you might find my Blackwork for Beginners ebook helpful, to teach you the basics.

blackwork embroidery pears

Design size

This design measures 3.3 x 3.9 inches when worked on 14 count Aida. The stitch count is 46 x 54.

You will need

The downloadable pears chart

Download the pdf chart from this link. Black arrows along the top and left-hand side of the chart mark the mid-points, and if you follow the red lines across you will find the center of the design.

Fold your fabric in half both ways and press to form a crease that temporarily marks the center.

If you count up 12 lines from the center of the fabric and then 3 to the left you will be in position to begin the bottom cross stitch of the right-hand stem.


Cross stitching the stem

Work the stem of the pears in cross stitch using two strands of embroidery floss. If you have not done cross stitch before, you might find my beginners tutorial helpful.

Stitching the Outline

Blackwork embroidery is easiest if you work the outlines first, using 2 strands of floss, in either a backstitch or double running stitch (also known as Holbein stitch).

If you are confident with your counting, you can start your thread with the loop method, otherwise I suggest leaving a tail which you can fasten off later. This way you can undo your work from the beginning if you make a counting mistake that you don't notice immediately. 

Working the blackwork repeating pattern

I suggest using 1 strand of embroidery floss to give a delicate appearance to the geometric blackwork pattern. You might find these referred to as diaper patterns in older publications such as the classic book by Elisabeth Geddes called Blackwork Embroidery that was reprinted in 1976. 

We will treat each "flower" on its own and then move on to the next in a diagonal row. Diagram A, shows the first "journey" around the flower, working every other running stitch. For the moment, ignore the centre of the flower. 

Next, go back around the flower, filling in the missing stitches. This time pop in the horizontal and vertical stitches that meet in the centre of the flower, as in Diagram B, left.

When you complete each flower, move on to the next in that diagonal row. Use the outlines to carry the thread from one row to the next. You can weave under the outline stitches for a short distance without it becoming too obvious on the back of the work.

Shaded blackwork areas

To add shadow and depth to the design, shade some areas by adding extra stitches to the blackwork embroidery using two strands of floss.

Tackle these in two stages. Some flowers have extra stitches in their centers. Work these at the same time as the flowers as shown below.

The photograph, worked in red thread, shows 3 completed flowers and the initial steps of the fourth. The additional stitches are placed in the center to  

Finally, we have the "squares" in between our flowers in places. Follow the chart carefully and stitch some completely and others only partly. 

To stitch these you can either make four cross stitches and box them in or work them entirely in Holbein stitch.

Congratulations on finishing your first piece of shaded blackwork embroidery.

You can see this pattern in use for the dress of my medieval lady, Gwendoline one of my downloadable blackwork embroidery patterns.

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