Blackwork is also sometimes called Spanish Blackwork. We believe that Katherine of Aragon introduced this form of embroidery to the English court when she married King Henry VIII. Blackwork commonly uses only black thread, but gold thread was also used during the early period.
It is very interesting that an Act of Parliament in 1553 forbid classes lower than a knight to wear pleated or plain shirts embroidered with gold or silver silk. Most of us wouldn't have qualified!
Portraits of Elizabeth I and other higher classed individuals from that time show the fine blackwork stitching on collars and sleeves.
How was it done
Blackwork consists of small straight stitches arranged in patterns on an evenly woven material. Modern blackwork isn’t limited to black, but the contrast between the thread and the background remains important as the design will get lost otherwise.
The patterns are generally geometric, so lends itself to counted thread embroidery done on even weave fabric. Each of the stitch patterns is made up of a series of small straight stitches, some horizontal, some vertical and some diagonal, each worked by counting threads. In the time of King Henry VIII women stitched blackwork on cuffs and collars of shirts and chemises. It was not only intended as decoration, but reinforced areas of clothing that would easily wear. The dark thread helped to disguise dirt.
The dye used for the black thread in England was iron based, making it very corrosive. As a result it is very rare to find historic items detailing blackwork. Black embroidery silk from outside England, such as Spain, contained less iron, so items stitched with this silk has survived.