Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Blackwork - my stitching meditation

Needlework appeals to me intermittently. I've become absorbed by cross stitch on occasion. However, the life of a self-employed entertainer can take up a lot of time. As any self-employed person will tell you, you can end up working far more hours than a regular employee, and time consuming hobbies can end up taking a back seat!

So the immobility enforced on me by my illness gave me the opportunity to revisit the joy of needlework. I discovered a new form of needlework I hadn't encountered before - blackwork.

The History blurb
I've researched a bit (mostly because I was trying to find out how to do it, but also to find out why it was called "blackwork" when it is done in any colour!), and I find the history quite interesting.

Known to date from the 15th/16th Centuries, blackwork seems to have grown from a desire to have lace decoration on clothing. Lace was extremely expensive and hard to access, so a technique of reverse running stitch in geometric designs was used. It's benefits were that it looked the same on both sides of the fabric, and if stitched in black thread gave the impression of lace but at a fraction of the price.
Blackwork is also known as Spanishwork, having been believed to have come to Britain from Spain with Catherine of Aragon (she who is better known for being that rare breed, a spouse of Henry VIII who lived to tell the tale!)
Blackwork is also known as Holbein stitch - but this has nothing to do with the artist's abilities with a needle! This alternative name stems from the painter Holbein depicting detailed illustrations of clothing in his oil-paintings. Art enthusiasts can check out collars and cuffs in his paintings to find examples.
The variations in colour came later, presumably from the monotony of only ever working with black thread! These in turn developed and spawned "redwork" and "goldwork" (but not "whitework", which is formed of completely different techniques)

For further reading about the history and ideas of designs, check out:

The technique
Actually the technique is very simple. If you take the basic "in, out" of running stitch going from left to right, you get...
_  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _  _

But if, when you reach the end of the line, you come back with a running stitch that fills in the gaps ("out, in"), your line becomes solid. I've shown it here with left to right stitches in black, and right to left stitches in red. Of course, in reality they would all be in the same colour.

Fiendishly simple! But also extremely boring if all you ever do is straight lines. Where blackwork becomes intricate, and indeed where it gathers it's beauty, is from the ingenious changes of direction that develop it's elaborate patterns.

The pieces
The first piece I did started out as an experiment in working different stitches, and rapidly turned into a banner sampler. I guess I was creating a sampler for exactly the same reason that our ancestors used to make them - as a record of how to do certain stitches. I love the concept that things we look at as pure decoration now, were essential records in the days before computers, photographs or photocopies!

I quite liked the fact that I had completed it all in one colour, despite protestations from hubby who felt that it should have a greater variety.

The "Snowy Rooftops in Prague" shown at the top of this post was where my inspiration took me with the technique. I saw a black-and-white photo in a magazine of the scene, and it seemed the perfect match for this style. To be honest, it is a bit of a cheat!
First of all, if it were true blackwork, it would all be worked in a single colour - not necessarily black, as I have already mentioned. I used four colours for this piece - black, white, and two shades of grey. It's less authentic than using the stitching to create all the shading, but it worked for me.
Secondly (cardinal sin, this one), as I couldn't work out how to create it purely from counting the threads, I drew the picture on the back of the canvas. Yes, I know! I can hear the purists out there tutting at me. It meant I was able to create the picture, though. (Strictly speaking it also means that all the buildings are back-to-front, but no-one has noticed that yet....)

More importantly at the time, I discovered this was one of the few things I could actually do at the height of my illness. When your body is throwing all the symptoms of anxiety attacks at you, all you can do is lie still and focus on your breathing. When you've been doing this for a few hours, it starts to get frustrating. Following the patterns of blackwork stitches was not only something I could do without having to stand, or even sit up, but it became quite therapeutic. Concentrating on these simple yet intricate designs became a form of meditation for me, as well as placating my sense of guilt at staying still for so long.

So, when I later resolved to quit smoking (successfully, I am proud to report) blackwork seemed like the ideal distraction whenever I craved a cigarette. It worked!

Firstly I experimented with using the shading of blackwork stitches to form a rose design. It didn't quite work, but then I was using a cross-stitch pattern. Technically, I did it properly this time, by counting the stitches rather than drawing the design. I think it failed because I didn't have enough contrast between the stitches to give the shading, and because the design was too small. Shading with stitches that are only one square of Aida fabric wide is simply too tricky! But every failure is a step towards perfection....

I then played with a couple of designs I'd found - one for daisies and one for lilies. The two were separate designs, but I combined them to change the shape of the final piece.

Having been quite inspired by this, I went online to seek images of and patterns for blackwork. There are thousands! I've gathered a few that I would like to try in the future, but I've overwhelmed myself a little. The images have to sit in my "ideas" notebook for a while, until I'm ready to commit to working on them. This is quite common for creative types, I believe - ideas need to ripen before we can produce them effectively. Good thing I have lots of pages in my notebook!


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