Friday, 12 April 2013


'Blackwork' is a form of embroidery using solely black thread, traditionally on white cotton or linen. This form of textile decoration was immensely popular in Elizabethan times, and features on the dresses pictured  in the wall paintings at the Forge Museum in Much Hadham. You can see more detail about the blackwork sleeves from the wall painting in this post - The Mysterious Sleeves of George Gower's Paintings.

Here are a few examples of blackwork used in Elizabethan fashion, from the V&A collection:

Blackwork sleeve panels - Slightly later than Elizabethan (c.1610), but these sleeves are very similar in style to those in the costume I am making. They are made of white linen, with silk thread embroidery.
Detail of sleeve above
Elizabethan coifs (women's informal headwear - it was customary for men and women to cover their heads in public) c.1600-1625. These pieces feature lavish floral designs embellished with silver and gold.
Stomachers (decorative panels at the front of dresses, covering front lacing) c.1590-1610. This blackwork design is inspired by strapwork in Elizabethan interior design.
Detail of blackwork on a coif, with gold embellishment. These beautifully intricate and detailed patterns often feature motifs from nature - here, holly sprigs.

Elizabethan blackwork was usually done with running stitch and back stitch, varied to create speckle textures and raised areas. Speckled stitching was used to recreate the look of woodblock prints used in books and expensive artwork.

Blackwork was used decoratively in many parts of Elizabethan costume, though mainly sleeves, coifs, chemises, smocks and on accessories such as handkerchiefs.

In the wall painting at the Forge Museum, it is clear that the costume I am interpreting features blackwork on the sleeves and partlet. Drawing from a wide range of research, I have designed this blackwork pattern for the sleeves:

In my design, I have included some of the motifs that I can see in the wall painting (diamonds with crosses inside them, down the center). In the portrait of Lady Kytson by George Gower, the sleeves she is wearing are embroidered with swirls of leaves and flowers. Taking this further, and thinking about the context of the wall painting and the scene it depicts, I have chosen to use Tudor roses in place of plain flowers. This led me to think about the symbolism in costume - it was popular from the medieval times to dress in the colours of your family crest, or to use family emblems in clothing embellishment. Imagery in embroidery was also used to tells stories. So, to give my costume more of a personal touch I have incorporated the family crests of the Kytson and Cornwallis family, to represent Lady Elizabeth Kytson's identity. These crests are displayed at the grand entrance of Hengrave Hall, Suffolk where the Kytson family lived and Queen Elizabeth visited during her progress, on her way to Much Hadham.

I will use black thread on white cotton to create these sleeves, using a variety of stitches to create different textures and patterns. The sleeve will be constructed in two parts (this decorated panel being the outer one), as they were in the Elizabethan times. A small ruff will be attached to the cuff, and the sleeve will attach to the bodice with ties at the shoulder - sleeves were rarely permanently attached to bodices, to enable the wearer to make many different combinations from a small number of garments.

I'm really excited to see these sleeves finished - I think they'll add much needed intricate detail and will really give that wow factor! In my next post I'll show you all the fabrics I've chosen for the costume, and hopefully some photos of the finished chemise, corset and farthingale.

To learn more about the incredible wall paintings that are inspiring this Tudor costume, you can visit the Much Hadham Forge Museum in Hertfordshire:www.hadhammuseum.org.uk

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