Blackwork Embroidery Pt 1 (Shading)

This is NOT going to be an introduction to or guide on how to do blackwork or any other type of hand embroidery, those are very easy to find online if you’re inspired and interested, but I enjoy talking about my favourite craft a lot and people seem to indulge me in this. (You can find my page of finished embroidery photos here and keep up on my embroidery Tumblr which is updated more quickly than this site.)

I took up cross stitching in 2010, and then in 2013 I tried out some blackwork because I’d seen some and it looked really fun. I’ve never looked back. I find blackwork much more enjoyable and fulfilling than cross stitch! It takes much longer to create the design, but usually it’s faster to stitch and the end result is just so lovely and unique. Most people can cross stitch a Pokemon sprite, but how many design and stitch a blackwork version of it? Like, three?

This is one of the first full blackwork pieces I did. It was more impressive than the cross stitch I’d been doing but I was still finding my style and knowledge. I had much to improve upon!

One of the interesting things is that there are many more ways to show different shades in blackwork than in cross stitch. In cross stitch, if you had five different shades of blue then you would either use five different shades of blue thread, or fewer threads and blending them. But here are some shading methods available in blackwork:

1. Five different colours. One pattern. One thread thickness.
2. One colour. Five different pattern stages. One thread thickness.
3. One colour. One pattern. Five different thread thicknesses (achieved either by using thread of differing thicknesses and/or using multiple strands of thread).
4. Five different colours. One pattern. One thread thickness. Colour change over a wider space than in 1 to make for a more gradual gradient. (This same more gradual effect can be accomplished with pattern or thread thickness.)
5. Three different colours. One pattern. Three different thread thicknesses. (Dark/thick, medium/thick, medium/medium, medium/skinny, light/skinny.)
6. Three different colours. One pattern. One thread thickness. Each section uses two strands of thread, with two sections blending different shades (dark/dark, dark/medium, medium/medium, medium/light, light/light).
7. One colour. Five different patterns. One thread thickness.

photoOf course, these can be combined for even more variety. In my dragonite piece (close-up on the right) I’ve used two thread thicknesses (one strand and two strands) and then for the lightest shade instead of going to three strands I’ve used a lighter orange thread.

I love this kind of variety, I can use different shading methods in different works depending on how many coloured threads I want to use or what aesthetic I’m going for. If I want to be minimalist I can use just one colour thread per colour group and shade by altering the number of thread strands per shade, using multiple threads of differing thicknesses, adding and removing elements from the base pattern, or using different patterns. If I want fewer patterns in the work, I can add colour shade or work with thread thickness.

And then there’s which patterns for each colour/shade/section to think about! I’ve found hundreds by looking online, modified some, and created my own. A thousand people could each design a blackwork piece based off of the same outline and they’d all be different. There aren’t any rules for which patterns you should use (even less if you’re not doing blackwork on a reversible item like a sleeve or bookmark), but there is an artistry to it. There are patterns which resemble feathers, flowers, natural textures, man-made items, and they can be used appropriately, such as a feather-like pattern on a bird. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to! You can place patterns which are similar in shapes or density next to each other to create gentle changes across the work or match ones with greater differences for contrast.

I’ve found that one of the most important decisions for me to make first is what style I’m going for. I’ll show this with my Sapphire and Ruby piece:

Left. I didn’t think about how many threads I wanted to use or what style I was aiming for, so I assumed a different colour thread for each shade of blue and red. Here I picked three different patterns for Sapphire I liked individually which were thematically cohesive with strong diamond shapes. (I’d also started on Ruby, but for ease of comparison here I’m not showing those patterns.)

Middle. I decided I wanted to use only one colour thread and only one thread thickness, so I paintbucket’d all the colours in my Photoshop file to one shade of blue. What did read well with different shades of blue is now a mess since the individual patterns are very similar in density, diamonds and diagonals. I now have to start all over again.

Right. Every pattern has been switched out here! This was a bit sad but I had liked the original three, but I liked the idea of flat colour work more. Sapphire’s hair, the lightest blue, has the least dense pattern; her dress, the darkest blue, has the most dense pattern; her skin and front of dress is in-between. Since the bulk of the dress has a lot of vertical and horizontal lines, I needed diagonals here to make the front of the dress read against the rest, but I needed diagonals that wouldn’t merge into the hair’s diagonals.

In the finished piece, you can see I’ve followed the same guidelines for Ruby, mixing densities and primary shapes/lines to keep each of Ruby’s shades distinct, but also distinct from Sapphire’s. There are fewer overt diamonds than in the original draft, but I managed to include a similar fence pattern on Sapphire and use shapes suggestive of diamonds or meaningful in other ways.
(based off of this original pixel art )

Working on that piece was made much easier by everything I’d learned on my Ninetales pattern. Which was a whole lot! I spent many weekends working on its design; to the right are nine of the attempts I made (there were many others) while I was struggling to understand the basics of what I was attempting. Compare the contrast between individual tails in the first row to those in the last row. (Yeah, I even changed sprite to see if that would help since the tails are thicker, but I was able to return to the earlier sprite with the pose I preferred.) I also initially started with a different idea about cloth and thread colour, and the unsightly gaps in the third on the top row are an attempt to shade via using different stages which I quickly abandoned.

This is a much more exaggerated example of the stages I went through (as you can see from the design WIPs I had more variety than just diamonds in my initial patterns) but it’s illustrative.

Left. Because of my workflow and how my individual fill patterns are organised, when I work on a draft it’ll look like this, keeping each individual pattern’s colour. This used to make things easier when originally picking patterns! (I’ve since changed my workflow a bit and this is less important now.) Here I was inspired by some more blackwork designs similar to this and decided that instead of simply having all of Ninetales be one basic pattern, each tail and body segment could be its own pattern. Each individual pattern has diamonds in it, some with additional squares or octagons, most are heavy on diagonals.

Middle. Oh wait Ninetales is all one colour let’s check how that looks – ohhh. oh. oh no. Visually it’s a mess: there’s very little variation in density, the diamonds on the lower body and first tail run into each other, the diagonals lead to too much sameness.

Right. Two things have happened here. The first is the density has been varied dramatically, and second is that the pattern shapes and lines have been varied. The upper body touches the most sections so it’s best to start with that, here I’ve made it the densest pattern and also the one with the most simple diamond so it’s nearly all diagonals. Each section has a different density and primary shape than the ones next to it. The mane shares a diagonal emphasis with the upper body but the density is so different changing from diamonds to wide and tall Vs that it still reads well.

Here’s the finished piece! It was readable without adding the yellow shading but I thought it looked better with the yellows. On this sprite there’s less room to establish patterns on the tails since they’re thinner, but I don’t have to worry about keeping the definition on the head. The mane, upper body and lower body share primary shapes, octagons separated by squares, and I’ve kept the upper and lower body quite similar but the difference between additional squares vs additional diagonals differentiates them, and the mane has subtractions to the base pattern as well as addition to make it less dense. The skinniest tail closest to the body only read well when it was a very dense pattern, and the third tail is quite skinny between the mane and fourth tail so it needed to be dense as well, which obviously means the second and fourth need to be less dense and also balance diagonals against horizontal/vertical lines, and so on from there until the last tail contrasts with the lower body.

Next time in pt 2: probably more shading.

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