by Aldith Angharad St. George
Whitework is a general term for embroidery worked on white
linen fabric with a white (usually linen) thread. There are many forms
and styles of Whitework. Some forms use texture for effect, such as
counted brick stitch or satin stitch work, and can be strictly classified
as embroidery. Other forms rely on open spaces made in the fabric
for their effect, such as pulled-thread and especially drawn-thread
work. These forms of whitework lead to the needle laces of the 16th
century. Whitework can also include outlines and details worked with
a black, brown or dark blue thread of wool or silk.
Whitework was most typically worked on altar and table linens from
about the 12th century. The earliest and most numerous examples that
have come down to us are from Germany, where it was used for altar
coverings, particularly for use during Lent. It is for this reason
that whitework was frequently referred to in church records as Opus
Teutonicum ("German Work"). However, there is a 12th century whitework
altar cloth from North Italy (Lombardy) that is worked in stem and
broad chain stitches, so whitework shouldn't be thought of as exclusively
A very secular 14th C example with counted thread fillings on
very fine linen. See jpegs below of detailed images.
By the 14th century, whitework becomes more common in North Italian
and Scandanavian altar linens, probably as a consequence of these
countries' proximity to Germany. However, it is surprising that there
seem to be far fewer, if any, examples of English, Flemish or Spanish
whitework until the 16th century.
It's been suggested by more than one writer that the reason that
so much whitework is concentrated in German convents is that these
convents were so poor that they couldn't afford silk and gold threads
for their embroideries, so the nuns used the ravellings of linen cloth
for embroidery thread. I think that while this may have been true
in the beginning, a taste for the austere beauty of white-on-white,
especially on a semitransparent ground, developed very quickly, with
the result that whitework became a sought-after style in much the
same way as Opus Anglicanum. Certainly, whitework is just as
challenging to stitch as silk or metal thread work.
By the 14th century, suspici-ous-ly secular designs began to appear
in South German and Swiss whitework, which may be an indication that
these pieces were worked by domestic, or even professional, embroiderers.
Some are likely to been used for secular purposes before being donated
to the church. During the 15th and 16th centuries, such secular work
becomes commonplace, and is used not only for table linens, towels
and curtains, but also on some items of clothing.
Regrettably, I haven't found any solid evidence so far for whitework
being used on secular clothing until the third quarter of the 15th
century, when examples of white-work on the increasingly visible edges
of shirts and chemises begin to appear in Germany, Italy and Spain.
During the first half of the 16th century, the major forms of whitework
(drawn-thread, pulled thread, insertion stitches, counted stitches
such as satin and brick stitches) were all used to decorate personal
linens more and more frequently, and this leads directly to the development
of needle laces.
The Virgin Mary, from a 13th C piece with counted fillings.
The techniques used in whitework vary from piece to piece. Those
listed below are merely the most common.
Figures are drawn on the ground fabric, and are filled with tiny
allover geometric patterns in counted satin stitch or brick stitch.
The variety of patterns is astonishing. ( In Swiss Linen Embroidery,
the figures may be outlined with a black, dark blue or brown wool
or silk thread in stem or split stitch, or couching.) The ground fabric
may be semi-transparent, very similar to handkerchief linen. The thread
counts vary considerably - some of this work is on a very fine scale.
I estimate them at about 30 - 60 threads per inch. (1)
In pulled-thread work,warp and weft threads are distorted to form
the pattern - pulled sideways, bound into groups, etc., but not removed
from the cloth. Pulled-thread work is sometimes used as a background
in both whitework and polychrome embroidery. One simple technique
is to simply make an overcast stitch after every 4th thread. Work
vertically (warp), then horizontally (weft). The pattern that emerges
is a regular grid of open squares. Pulled-thread edge treatments on
chemises become popular in the 16th century: one version resembles
hemstitching (a drawn-thread technique). (2)
In drawn-thread work, warp and weft threads are carefully counted,
and certain threads are removed - pulled out of the ground fabric.
The remaining threads are then worked in a variety of stitches. Drawn-thread
used as a background (every 4th warp and weft thread withdrawn, then
overcast stitch worked over the remaining threads) may be further
embellished with darned-net (lacis) stitches. Drawn-thread borders
become very popular in the mid-16th century, both on personal linens
and on table linens. (3)
Counted Satin (or "Matt" stitch)
Counted satin is especially popular in Italy, but is also common
in Germany in the 16th century. It is most frequently worked in geometric
patterns, and may or may not be combined with drawn thread and cutwork
techniques. Patterns are found in several pattern-books from the period.
Non-counted & miscellaneous stitches
Chain stitch, Broad Chain stitch, Plait Stitch, Back stitch, Stem
stitch, Interlacing stitch, Herringbone stitch are also used in some
whitework styles. (5)
Dress-weight linens (light and medium weight), or semi-transparent
I don't recommend using "evenweave" linens that are purpose-made for
needlework. Dress-weight & handkerchief linens closely resemble
the fabrics used in period. However, if these linens aren't readily
available, tabby-weave cottons will work just as well. Cotton batiste
is an excellent substitute for handkerchief linen, and is especially
suitable for chemises and partlets.
- Linen: Danish Flower threads, Thread Gatherer
- Silk: Ping Ling, Kreinik Soie Platte, YLI, Eterna
- Wool: Medici by DMC, or any fine wool thread
- Cotton is nearly indistinguishable from linen thread for
most purposes. For Counted Satin, DMC Floche is better than DMC's
regular cotton floss; however, white Soie Platte (flat silk) is
excellent. Be sure to avoid heavily twisted threads, such
as Pearl Cotton.
Studying period examples of these techniques is, as always, the
best way to learn about them. Here are some good pieces to start with.
- Counted fillings: Scheutte & Müller-Christensen,
pp. 53, 98-104, 189, 194-195, 207, 212-213, 219, 221
- Pulled thread background: Scheutte & Müller-Christensen,
pg. 92. For an example of pulled-thread edgings, see Levey, plate
- Drawn-thread background: Scheutte & Müller-Christensen,
pg. 95. For examples of drawn-thread borders, see Geijer, plate
74 (shirt cuff from the Sture costumes) and Levey, plate 38.
- Satin stitch patterns: New Modelbuch plates 23, 25-28.
For an example of a partlet worked entirely in counted satin, see
Levey, plates 8 and 8A.
- Non-counted stitches: Schuette & Müller-Christensen,
German Renaissance Patterns for Embroidery: a Facsimile Copy
of Nicholas Basee's New Modelbuch of 1568. Curious Works Press,
Hispanic Costume, 1480-1530 by Ruth Matilda Anderson: The
Hispanic Society of America, 1979.
Lace: A History by Santina M. Levey. The Victoria & Albert
Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers by Kay Staniland. University
of Toronto Press, 1991.
A Pictorial History of Embroidery by Marie Scheutte and Sigrid
Müller-Christensen. Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.
(Try inter-library loan if your local library doesn't have it.)
Textile Treasures of Uppsala Cathedral by Agnes Geijer. Almqvist
& Wiksells Boktrykeri AB, 1964.