First off, what is it? It’s the name of a style of embroidery that has a few forms, historically and tends to mean just one of those forms modernly.
It is stitched with black thread, except when it is not. It’s counted work, except when it’s not. It is reversible, except when it’s not. It is only done with double running stitches, except when it is not. You get the picture here.
The first style, and the one that is almost exclusively used modernly, is counted blackwork. This can be reversible, or not. (Modernly, usually not). It is very linear, made up of repeated motifs on evenweave fabric. It is what one thinks of in Tudor collars and cuffs. It can be stitched with backstitch, or double running stitch (also called holbein stitch). Backstitch is not generally reversible, double running stitch generally is. The best resource I’ve ever found for the nitty gritty of double running stitch can be found on Kim Brody Salazar’s blog (Countess Ianthé, d’Averoigne): String or Nothing. Blackwork (the counted fill variety) seems to be coming into a current spate of modern popularity, if some current stitch alongs are anything to go by.
This is not what I’m using for my February’s blackwork piece for the Athena’s thimble sampler. I’ve done blackwork before in my coif, (which apparently I never blogged about, but there’s a shot of it in progress there, and pictured above.) and I’m going with another motif from a different inspiration coif. The free stitch blackwork on coifs is generally done with your favourite outline stitch: backstitch, split stitch, stem stitch, plaited braid stitches are the usual ones, and then the centres are either filled in with either small counted motifs, or shaded with just little seed stitches. Sometimes there are pearls, sometimes spangles. Usually it’s monochrome, sometimes it’s not.
This coif is from the V&A, it’s listed in Digby’s Elizabethan Embroidery as being plaited stitch, stem stitch and back stitch and entirely done in black silk. I’m aiming to use some bits of dye experiments, so cochineal dyed silk on a scrap of linen fabric, and the current plan is plaited braid for the outline, and then split stitch interior outlines (maybe backstitch, we’ll see how the spirit moves me), with 3 leaves getting fills and 2 leaves getting seed stitch shading. Now we’ll see how much of this cunning plan survives contact with reality of stitching!