Creating texture in blackwork embroidery

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted an update on my blackwork assessment piece for the Royal School of Needlework (RSN) certificate. I’ve enjoyed and learnt so much while stitching this piece. Meaning there’s loads I want to share! Today I’m going to focus on what I’ve learnt about creating texture in blackwork.

I think to create a strong portrait there’s a few things you need to hit. A recognisable likeness. Good tone and shading to create depth. A representation of the different textures in the subject.

Over the years, I’ve taken a few drawing and painting classes that have really built up my confidence in shading. As well as helping me to create better likenesses.

However textures have continued to be a bit of a nemesis. I’m quite comfortable with smooth textures, but I’ve often struggled with creating the feel of rougher textures. As my subject, Bracken, is a Springer Spaniel the fur on his ears is much coarser than on his body and face. So I was keen to get advice from my tutor on how best to approach it.

Bracken, a Springer Spaniel lying on a duvet looking at the camera.

I ended up approaching it in stages, learning bit by bit as I went.

Blackwork stitch selection

This is the stitch pattern I chose for his ear as it had a strong directional feel. I’d seen other, similar patterns in blackwork books that I adapted to create what I felt was most appropriate for Bracken’s fur.

Diagonal lines pattern on a grid.

As I was starting to stitch, my tutor suggested that the pattern could be rotated for different parts of his ear. This would allow me to better capture the sweeping angles of his fur so I was all for it.

Rather than give myself too much to think about from the start, I began by stitching the right hand side of his ear, since this section was all in the same direction. This was also the side that had the most shade variation.

In the following photo, you can see that I’ve shaded his ear by using 2 strands of stranded cotton at the top, 1 strand of stranded cotton in the middle and I’m starting to use 1 strand of machine thread at the bottom.

Shaded blackwork using a diagonal pattern.

You can see that while you get the directional sense of the fur, it looks pretty smooth.

Adding texture to my blackwork

So for my homework, I sampled how to create the texture.

This is what worked best, adding random, broken sections of stitches in the gaps.

Rotating a blackwork pattern. A white oval highlights a small area where the direction has changed.

You can also see that I’ve started stitching areas with the rotated versions of the pattern to reflect the change in fur direction across his ear. The vertical section is easy to see. I’ve also circled a small section where the diagonal direction is different to add in some extra detail. My hope was that this would also help to reflect the hair texture better by adding in more variation.

Before stitching the rotated stitch patterns, I did a few tests on graph paper. This helped me to figure out the best offsets for the different patterns. Doing this helped me to ensure I didn’t accidentally create an artefact from combining the rotating patterns.

Pattern drawings on graph paper to test alignment of the different pattern rotations. In one alignment you can see kite shaped holes appearing in the pattern.

This meant ensuring that I kept the small stitches of the pattern offset from each other. Otherwise I’d have created the small kite shapes that you can see in the top right example. These kites make the line between the two patterns obvious, which I didn’t want.

Building up the ear

I kept stitching like this around the rest of his ear, switching between the rotated patterns as I felt best matched my photo.

The ear now has 3 rotations of the blackwork pattern and random additional stitches are being added to create the texture.

I found it easiest to get the basic pattern and direction changes in first. Then to go back and add in the additional stitches for the texture.

This had two benefits. It was easier to count the pattern when it was less dense. Plus I found it easier to judge where the texture was needed when I had more surrounding stitching for context.

The majority of the ear has been worked. Additional stitches still need to be added at the top to create the correct tone and texture.

I was also starting to learn that it’s much easier to darken my blackwork stitching that to lighten it! You can add additional stitches to darken the tone. But the only option for lightening is to unpick and stitch it again.

So if in doubt about the appropriate thread thickness, I started using the finer option. Then I could use thicker additional stitches in the sections that needed darkening.

I had wondered if this approach would be RSN approved. So my mind was firmly put at ease after reading experienced tutor Jen Goodwin’s new Blackwork Embroidery book, which recommends the use of additional stitches.

Finishing touches

With the main part of Bracken’s ear worked, all that was left was to add in the fly away fur you can see along the edge of his ear. Which would add to the textural feel of this part of my blackwork.

After my tutor reassured me that the goal was to create more of an impression and the feel of the hair rather than a super exact copy of the photograph, I had a go at working these wisps with further rotations of my pattern. I think it worked quite well.

Close up of the completed blackwork dog ear. Fly away stitches have been added to enhance the textural feel.

Thoughts on blackwork texture

I’ve shown you lots of close up photos so that you can see the details of my stitching. However, it’s worth pointing out that while working I was regularly looking at my embroidery from further back. I do this as I think it’s important to check that my stitching is working in it’s wider context.

I also regularly remind myself that my stitching will rarely be viewed as close up as when I’m stitching it! Often things that feel wrong when I’m looking at them close up aren’t even noticeable from a bit of a distance. A quick and easy way to check this is to take a photograph of your work.

In progress stitching of a Springer Spaniel portrait in blackwork embroidery. The ear, snout and a large section of the body have been completed.

Another thing that I’ve found with blackwork embroidery is that it’s hard to really judge how well your stitching is working at first. When drawing and painting, I normally build up my whole piece in stages. So I’m always able to check how the whole piece is working. I feel like blackwork requires quite a lot of trust in your process at the beginning!

For example, I think Bracken’s ear looked much better once I’d started stitching his face. This is because the fur on his face is much smoother than his ears. So being able to see these different textures next to each other enhances their contrast.

Springer Spaniel blackwork embroidery portrait. The smooth texture of his face enhances the rougher texture of his ear.

Plus his ear creates a shadow on his face, so that’s important for the shading and depth to make sense.

As I complete more of Bracken’s portrait, I think his ear is one of my favourite parts! I’m sure I could improve on it if I stitched it again. I’m also happy to call it a success in figuring out how to create texture in blackwork!


To summarise what I’ve learnt, the main tips I have for depicting strong textural areas in blackwork are:

  • Think strong contrasts. This could be in the thread thickness you are using or the density of your stitching.
  • It will probably look a bit odd to you as you are stitching it. Be sure to regularly check how it looks from a distance.
  • Sample, experiment and have fun!

You can read more posts about my Royal School of Needlework certificate journey here.

I’ll be writing more posts about my blackwork piece soon. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to write about!

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4 thoughts on “Creating texture in blackwork embroidery

  1. Looks amazing! I am completing the Jacobean first module at the moment, so some time until I begin the blackwork piece. Looks quite challenging. Your experiences are very informative-thanks.

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