What is blackwork embroidery?
The Holbien stitch is so named because of the work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), famous for paintings of Henry VIII and his children, showing exquisite detail of blackwork embroidery done in a manner so that the work is reversable.
While it is generally referred to as 'blackwork', historically done with black silk thread on linen, other colors have also been used: red, blue, green, yellow and possibly brown.
Beginning blackwork embroiderers often start with simple samplers so that they may practice various stitching patterns. Samplers also serve as a useful catalog showing the many patterns that are available.
Jane Bostocke Sampler
The oldest known dated sampler is the Jane Bostocke sampler: November 23, 1598. I had never seen the sampler in color. When I finally found a book with a color photo, it was chance that led me down a path much longer than I had thought!
Through interlibrary loan, I checked out the book, Samplers from the Victoria and Albert Museum. (also available in paperback). The samplers were presented in chronological order. So, I was delighted to see the Jane Bostocke sampler in color (see, blackwork really does come in other colors!). I was even more amazed when I turned the page.
16th Century Italian Sampler
There was a sixteenth century Italian sampler, also in full color. But, along with a full-page color image, there was a detail of a dragon design, guaranteed to get my attention. When I went looking further, I discovered that it was a sampler I had already seen in a book that my mother had left to me: The Art of Blackwork Embroidery by Rosemary Drysdale. This book contains black-and-white photos of the Holbein Jane Seymore and Henry VIII paintings, but also a black-and-white photo of the Italian sampler (mislabeled as a 17th century sampler). I had seen the sampler before, but had obviously never really looked, because in black-and-white, I completely missed that the sampler has, not just the large dragon, but also a minature design of the same dragon.
Based upon the dragon designs, I have created a frontal (it lies underneath the tablecloth, with the design hanging over the side, appearing on the 'front' of the table) with the dragon design. I entered an An Tir Kingdom Arts & Sciences competition (not as a contender, but to test the waters) with the frontal done as a sampler with three designs.
Recently, I have become involved in a project to complete designs of the 115 patterns that appear on the Italian sampler. When I am done, I will assemble the designs into a full scale pattern so that I can, as nearly as I can, recreate the sampler. I have created a page with 25 of these patterns free for your use.
How am I doing? The work is coming together at a very nice pace. While I still want to do some research on the (few) cross-stitch patterns, I have good patterns for all of the other designs. I have all of the patterns scaled and laid. I am currently assembling supporting documentation (how to do the stitches) and general layout information (how to assembe or order the patterns on to a full sampler).
There are some who maintain that "perfection is an affront to the gods." However, I have found that there's never a problem with actually attaining perfection… so I want my path to a completed project to be as close to perfect as I can get it. To that end, I have been developing what I call the Grid Basting Method, a process that I use to minimize any potential errors in counted cross stitch or black work. I invite you to check it out and send me input on how I might improve the directions.
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