Monochromatic Embroidery: Blackwork, Whitework, Redwork, Bluework

Sounds like a Dr. Zeuss book... This is not intended to be a comprehensive study or history of these embroideries, just an incredibly brief overview. (Think of it as Embroidery Cliff Notes.) I am not an expert, I'm just sharing some basic information that I've gleened from various sources. I have included only information that seems to be generally accepted as fact, but as with many styles of needlework, it can be difficult to find an accurate history or sometimes even a standard name.

BLACKWORK. In the strictest sense, blackwork is simply black stitching on white fabric, although the designs were occasionally stitched in scarlet as well. Popular in England during the Tudor and Elizabethan eras (1485-1603), blackwork originated in Spain and is sometimes referred to as Spanish Work or Spanish Blackwork. This embroidery style was introduced to the English courts by Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, when she married into the royal family. In 1509, when Catherine became Queen of England, many court ladies were influenced by her blackwork-embellished dresses. Blackwork was also used to decorate household linens.

Early examples of blackwork show the influence of geometric Islamic and Moorish designs. In the later Elizabethan era, the motifs became more naturalistic, depicting flowers, tendrils, leaves, and animals. Common stitches used for blackwork were stem stitch, seed stitch, braid stitch, and coral knot. Later blackwork included speckling and herringbone stitch. Double running stitch -- a stitch which made the design reversible -- was seen so often in portraits by the court painter Hans Holbein the Younger, that it is also called the Holbein Stitch.

WHITEWORK. Throughout the world, there are many variations of whitework, but basically it's white thread on white fabric. Whitework often includes eyelets, cutwork, openwork, and pulled-thread. Since there are is no color to distract the eye, whitework requires well-executed stitches to be really successful. Whitework has been popular for clothing, handkerchiefs, and linens. Following are a few types of whitework that I've found:

Ayrshire Needlework. Delicate and ornate, this whitework originated in Scotland in the late 1700s. Stitched on muslin and cotton, it was a popular embellishment for christening gowns and fine linens. Ayrshire fell out of use in the late 19th century as fashion tastes changed and sewing machines made such intricate handwork too costly. Common stitches are satin stitch, buttonhole stitch, looped fillings and eyelets.

Broderie Anglaise. This seems to be a pretty broad term, but the samples I've found most resemble eyelet. Broderie Anglaise (English Embroidery), with its large eyelets and simple cutwork, was used to embellish clothing and linens. Sometimes referred to as Eyelet, Madeira, or Swiss Work.

Candlewicking. An American needlecraft that began in Colonial times, probably more out of necessity than preference. Fine fabrics and threads would have been expensive and difficult to come by, cotton homespun and candlewicks, on the other hand, would have been readily available. Candlewicking can either be worked by making tufts that resemble chenille, or by stitching the design with colonial knots (or french knots), backstitch and satin stitch. Coverlets, pillows, and clothing were items commonly decorated with this simple and sturdy embroidery.

Cutwork. Areas are finished with closely placed buttonhole stitches and then the inner fabric is cut away. Satin stitch is used, and for the more ornate varieties, buttonhole bars are used to fill the spaces between the remaining fabric. The result is a lace-like effect. Specific styles of cutwork are Renaissance, Richelieu, and Venetian.

Mountmellick. From Mountmellick, Ireland, this sturdy, dimensional whitework style was used primarily for household linens. It is sometimes called Mountmellick Lace, although there are no eyelets or other open work used. Flowers and other objects from nature were popular motifs. Traditionally designs were stitched on bright white cotton satin jean, using heavy threads such as knitting or pearl cotton, and edges finished with buttonhole stitch or fringe. Mountmellick's popularity was at its peak in the late 1800s. Commonly used stitches are: Stem stitch, buttonhole, satin stitch, french knots, bullion stitch, chain stitch, cable stitch, lazy daisy, featherstitch, thorn stitch, and coral knot, among others. However, there are three stitches used specifically for Mountmellick embroidery: cable plait stitch, Mountmellick stitch, and Mountmellick thorn stitch.

Tambour Work. Tambour work is simply a chain stitch created with a crochet hook-like tool rather than a needle. It has been called Crochet Worked in a Frame or Tambour Crochet, as it was originally worked using a hoop which attached to a table edge. This allowed the stitcher to use both hands - one to hold the hook, the other underneath to loop the thread around the hook. Floral motifs were the most common as tambour work was typically used for wedding veils, delicate bed curtains, cuffs and handkerchiefs. The ground was cambric, fine muslin, or netting - the stitch shows itself to best advantage on a fairly sheer fabric. (See sample to right.)

In India, tambour is often used to fill large areas using colored wool. I'm assuming the pillows and rugs decorated in this way are produced by machine - otherwise it would be very time consuming to create them.

Redwork & Bluework. Redwork and bluework are basically the same thing: outline images stitched in a single color, typically on muslin, using basic embroidery stitches: outline or stem stitch, french knots, running stitch, satin stitch, and lazy daisy, among others. This form of embroidery was popular from approximately 1900-1925, although there are redwork quilts from the 1930s. The most common images were of children, nursery rhyme characters, flowers, birds and animals, although airplanes, boats, and cars were used as well. If you could trace it, you could stitch it.

Redwork is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Turkey Work. Turkey Work is in fact a raised, loop stitch otherwise known as ghiordes knot. (see image) The confusion seems to come from the origin of the early red floss. Some say that the red color originally came from Turkey (the dye was made from the madder plant and was used in their rugs), others have noted that the actual floss sold in America was called Turkey Red. Most agree that it was popular because of it's attractive color and the fact that it was colorfast. Today, DMC floss 304 or 498 are thought to be closest to the original "turkey red."

Bluework, using colorfast indigo colored floss, was also popular, although it seems to have been more of a preference among German immigrants. Pillows, kitchen linens, curtains, laundry bags - just about any household cloth were often decorated with bluework. Again, these images were simple outlines of little children, flowers, mountain scenes, windmills, sailboats, even words of wisdom. This bluework, however, is very different from the blue embroidery known as Deerfield Embroidery which developed in Massachusetts.

At the turn of the century, redwork patterns were often offered free in newspapers and magazines. I suspect that the simple designs reflected the unique conditions of the early 1900s. The working class woman, who would not be able to afford ready-made decorative items for her home, could create inexpensive tea towels and linens from muslin and then embellish them with her own embroidery. Elaborate designs would be time consuming and more expensive due to the materials required. With a little colorfast red embroidery floss and a piece of muslin, a woman could quickly make something attractive yet durable for her home.


  1. Rose Wilder Lane, Woman's Day Book of American Needlework,
    Simon and Schuster, 1963.

  2. Yusai Fukuyama, Tambour Work, Lacis Publications, 1997.

  3. Mary Gostelow, Blackwork, Dover Publications, 1998.

  4. Carter Houck, White Work, Dover Publications, 1978.

  5. Jacqueline Enthoven, The Stitches of Creative Embroidery, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1964.

  6. Therese de Dillmont, The Complete Encyclopedia of Needlework, 3d ed., Running Press, 1996.

  7. Rosemary Drysdale, "Blackwork", FineLines, Vol. 3, No. 3, Winter 1999, pp. 6.

Detail of Madonna of Mercy and the Mayor Meyer Family by Hans Holbein the Younger, c1528.


Broderie Anglaise.
From a petticoat, c.1860.




Traditional tambour work. Heavy cotton thread on cotton net, c.1900.

Tambour work fill from
a cat pillow made in India.

Finished redwork block by Andrea English. For this pattern, click here.

Portion of a bluework tablecloth. German, c.1930.