Choosing blackwork stitches

In my last post I shared the first stages of the design process for my RSN Certificate Blackwork module. In this post I’m going to share with you another key part of my preparation – choosing the blackwork stitches.

Blackwork is a counted embroidery technique that is worked by stitching geometric patterns. I think pretty much any repeating geometric pattern could be used for blackwork. Although you can certainly make things easier for yourself by not going too complicated!

To satisfy the module brief, I need to use at least 5 different stitches. Although as my tutor said, getting enough stitches will not be an issue! For my crewelwork module I got the impression it was a case of the more stitches the better. But with blackwork, the emphasis is less on quantity and more on appropriateness.

What I considered when choosing blackwork stitches

I focused on two main considerations when choosing blackwork stitches for my design. Here’s the photo of Bracken that I’m using for my design, so you know what I’m talking about!

Photo of Bracken, a Springer Spaniel, who will be my blackwork embroidery subject

1. How dark or light is this part of the design?

I need to ensure that the stitch patterns will allow me to achieve the correct tones.

So for the darker areas, such as Bracken’s face and dark fur, I need to pick dense stitch patterns. Likewise, for his light fur, I need to look for stitch patterns that are less dense.

2. What texture am I trying to achieve?

To create a compelling portrait, I don’t need to just get the tones right. Bracken will look much more realistic if my stitching suggests the appropriate texture.

Some parts of my design are quite smooth, while other parts have quite a bit of texture. For example Bracken’s ears are very shaggy in comparison to the rest of his fur and the duvet he’s sitting on is smooth.

How I chose my blackwork stitches

I started out reviewing blackwork books that include lots of different stitch patterns.

The RSN’s Blackwork guide has a good selection of stitches and also helpfully includes notes on what the different patterns work well for. Another great reference is “Blackwork Embroidery” by Elisabeth Geddes and Moyra McNeill. This book has a HUGE selection of stitch patterns to browse through.

I created myself a shortlist of patterns and a visual reference by drawing them out on graph paper. As well as using the reference books, I played around with creating some of my own patterns. This allowed me to think really specifically about the textures.

Comparing different blackwork patterns on graph paper
Blackwork stitch patterns and planning which will be used where in my design

I also played around with some for fun patterns. One of my experiments was to create a pattern based on a dog paw. Unfortunately when I tessellated it, it no longer looked like a dog paw, so that idea got shelved (for now!).

When I shared my workings and thoughts with my tutors, we agreed some stitches quite easily while others required more thought. As ever, they had really useful feedback and advice.

Sampling the stitches

Once we’d narrowed down the list of stitches I’d be using, it was time to start sampling.

I don’t think everyone does this, so it’s not an essential part of the process. But I’ve found it very useful.

Since we have a number of different thread thicknesses to work with (ranging from fine silk thread to coton a broder) I wanted to check the tone that each thickness created. For some stitches, I didn’t need to sample the full range of thicknesses. For example, the dark fur on Bracken’s body is dark all over so there was no need to sample in the finest threads.

Sampling of blackwork stitches using different thread thicknesses

I’ve kept this stitch sampler nearby as I stitch. While the tones don’t always appear exactly the way I’d imagined in my actual piece, it does help me to get a good starting point.

Another benefit of doing the graph paper and stitch samplers has been to help me get really familiar with each of the different blackwork stitch patterns. I’m all too aware that the RSN’s assessors will be looking very closely for any missed stitches or miscounting! So it’s been useful to get comfortable with the patterns before stitching them on my assessment piece.

Now with my design prep done and blackwork stitches chosen, I’m ready to start stitching the actual piece!

Stay tuned for more posts as the stitching progresses. Sign up below if you’d like me to keep you up to date.

8 thoughts on “Choosing blackwork stitches

  1. This is such beautiful work. I am intrigued with Blackwork. My sewing hobby is quilting, but in my work-life I’m a designer and originally trained as a printer and love everything lino print. So Blackwork is something I’ve long wanted to try. I have seen the RSN course and was tempted. But seeing your lovely work has now inspired me to sign up. Thank you!

    1. Hi Heather, great to hear you’ve been inspired to sign up to the course! I loved it, sounds like you will too 🙂 Just be warned that it can get addictive!! Perhaps you’ll be able to combine some blackwork and quilting – I’ve framed some of my embroidery with a bit of a quilted border to turn it into a cushion for example.

  2. Can’t wait to see what you do with your project… I also signed up for the Blackwork online course offered by RSN. I’m new at Blackwork having worked on only one sampler. But I love it. I will begin my course in Jan. -Anita

    1. Thanks Anita, I’ll be posting updates on my project soon, I’m really enjoying it and I’m already thinking about the next one(s!). It’s such a fabulous technique, I’m sure you’ll love your course, a great thing to be looking forward to 😀

        1. I’ve got a few animal portrait ideas that I’d love to do. I’ve seen some stunning people portraits in blackwork, so I’m keen to give that a go too. Although I wonder if I should start with a self portrait just in case it doesn’t go so well, then I won’t offend anyone!!

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