Denise Maroney is dedicated to exploring the historical origins of blackwork embroidery—its historical and art-historical legacies—as well as ways to introduce contemporary techniques into the age-old practice. She cites her interest in the medium of blackwork as stemming from the intrinsic straightforwardness of its style: “[blackwork has] parameters that are in a sense very simple, which is this idea of just using a black thread and creating really interesting surfaces, texture, and shading through it.” The challenge of using basic elements to create a complexity of form and pattern is part of what makes the technique so compelling.
For years, blackwork embroidery, commonly referred to as “Spanishwork,” was associated with Catherine of Aragon, who was believed to have brought many examples of Spanish blackwork garments back to England with her in the sixteenth century. However, as Maroney explains, the origins of the blackwork technique can be traced back much farther and in places other than England, from North Africa and the Levant. Earlier examples of similar geometric work can be found in Islamic North African textiles from before the eighth century C.E., albeit in colors other than black. Muslim populations from North Africa settled in southern Spain at the beginning of the eighth century, bringing with them this geometric style.
Traditionally, blackwork is an example of counted-thread embroidery, thus rendering an exactitude of line that allows one to create precise geometric designs that can be repeated without losing their precision. Maroney emphasizes the importance of thread thickness in this technique with varying weights of thread employed to render a sense of shading in blackwork textiles. Embroidered floral and vegetal motifs, as well as more linear patterns, were inscribed along clothes’ borders, such as necklines, hems, and sleeves. This is an example of the more utilitarian uses of blackwork embroidery, says Maroney, because “there’s a functional element that comes along with having black thread used on fabric, which is that it really hides any kind of dirt well. So at times when washing wasn’t as common, it was really practical and useful to have borders—your neckline or your sleeve length—adorned in dark thread so as to hide dirt or any kind of stain that would happen.”
Blackwork collars and sleeves can be observed in historical portraiture across various chronological and geographical borders, perhaps most famously in the works of Hans Holbein the Younger (leading to the naming of the double running stitch that is used in blackwork as the Holbein Stitch). Portraits of Mary Tudor, Jane Seymour, and Henry VII alike all feature the sitters clad in blackwork garments. Maroney finds this element of blackwork’s history to be particularly fascinating, especially the ability to observe the evolution of the art form over time through its various painted documentations.
Although blackwork largely fell out of use after the Elizabethan period, it has had a resurgence in the modern era thanks to textile historians and makers like Maroney who are interested in its rich multicultural history. In her personal practice, Maroney explores the technique by “rendering different images by playing with different black threads, black tapestry wools, and black ribbon.” Blackwork allows the maker freedom to experiment with the value of line and the quality of thread, celebrating the physical medium of embroidery itself.
On March 9, 2023, Denise will be teaching Blackwork Embroidery, part of our World Embroidery Series!
Christie, Grace. Samplers and Stitches: A Handbook of the Embroiderer’s Art. London: B.T. Batsford, 1920.
Goodwin, Jen. Blackwork Embroidery: Techniques and Projects. Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2020.
Gostelow, Mary. Blackwork. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1977.
Scheuer, Nikki. Designs for Holbein Embroidery. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976.
Irish-Lebanese-American by birth, and raised between New York City and Japan, Denise Maroney’s eclectic cultural background inspires and reflects her cross-cultural projects around the globe as a textile designer, curator, and professor.
Maroney began her career in theatre working in New York City as a costume designer, and later as the founder and producer of The (B)IM Project, a non-profit theatre company that brought Lebanese and American artists together to create original work and perform in site-specific locations across Lebanon. Living in the Middle East drew her attention to the arts and crafts practiced in the region
Interest in the intersection between culture, art, textiles, and craftmanship led her to pursue an MFA in Textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, supplementing her studies with embroidery courses at Atelier Lesage (France) and the Textile Research Centre (Holland). Upon graduating, she spent a year working for The
Mitchell Denburg Collection, an artisanal weaving mill and artist residency located in Antigua, Guatemala. The cross-cultural parallels found in textile making in Mesoamerica and the Middle East- and communities across the world- continue to inspire and guide her design work and research, especially as a professor at the SUNY
Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC), Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (Lebanon) and the Textile Arts Center (NYC).
Currently, Maroney is based in New York City, and works as the manager of embroidery for Lingua Franca, a bespoke design house specialized in hand embroidered garments.