Blackwork embroidery – my starting point

Catherine_of_Aragon.pngI love blackwork embroidery.  It satisfies my desire for history, my love of pattern and my need to do something creative.

Blackwork embroidery has been around for a very long time.  Chaucer mentions it in the Canterbury Tales but it was the arrival of Catherine of Aragon in England in 1501, as the bride of Henry VII’s son, Prince Arthur that set in motion a timeline that would see blackwork or ‘Spanishwork’ become one of the period’s most popular forms of needlework.

Prince Arthur died in 1502 and Catherine found herself being used as a diplomatic pawn by her father Ferdinand of  Aragon and her father-in-law Henry VII.  She became a penniless princess but in 1509 upon the death of Henry VII she married Arthur’s younger brother who had just turned eighteen King Henry VIII.  For a time theirs was a love match and like her mother, Isabella of Castile, Catherine made Henry’s shirts.  She embroidered the neck and cuffs with symmetrical patterns in black thread and before long everyone was doing it.

The style leant itself to borders on cushions and pillows as well as collars, cuffs and hems. Gradually the embroidery spread until it covered curtains, bed spreads, night caps, doublets and dresses.  It was such a fashionable style that one of the stitches that embroiderers use in the creation of  blackwork embroidery was eventually dubbed Holbein stitch after the fact that many of the ladies and gentlemen depicted in the portraits of Henry VIII’s court painter Hans Holbein feature blackwork.


henry-viiiCatherine continued to stitch Henry’s shirts throughout her married life. Unfortunately the fairy tale romance of the princess who had married Prince Charming came to a sad conclusion.  By 1525 Henry had stopped sleeping with his wife and in 1527 Ann Boleyn came upon the scene.  Before long Henry would declare that Catherine’s marriage was not a true one and the King’s Great Matter would result in her increasing isolation, the bastardisation of their only child, the Princess Mary and then Catherine’s death at Kimbolton Castle in Cambridgeshire in January 1536.

Blackwork embroidery on the other hand would go from strength to strength in a more secular society surviving the Tudors and into the Stuart period before fading from fashion with the advent of printed fabrics imported from Asia.

catherine-of-aragon-emblemSo, for the first project of The Sewing Jar I am going to tackle a blackwork embroidery project with a link to Catherine.  Her motto was ‘humble and loyal’ and her insignia was a pomegranate.  She chose this because she spent many of her formative years in Grenada. The city’s symbol is a pomegranate because it looks a bit like a grenade.  A pomegranate is also symbolic of fertility.  Catherine’s role as queen was to provide sons for Henry VIII.  It was her failure to do this that sealed her fate.  At the time of her marriage to Henry, the Tudor rose could often be seen linked or even merged with the pomegranate. To this day people leave pomegranates on Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in Peterborough Cathedral.

The pomegranate was popular as a device to stitch throughout the period – and so for these reasons and the fact that the pomegranate has a simple shape useful to free form embroidery techniques, the pomegranate will be my first venture.



About JuliaH

I teach history courses for the Workers' Educational Association as well as giving talks on various history topics across Yorkshire and the Midlands as well as talks about the history and creation of cross stitch samplers, blackwork embroidery and silhouette cutting.
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