Finding Women in History Through Sewing


Of late, I have become fascinated with historical fiction novels that accurately depict the story of little known women in the midivil ages up through the American Civil War.  I love the ways that they work the everyday details of their lives into the stories and how you get to see how much the little things like their sewing and tapestry work influenced their households and even nations.  So much of women’s history is recorded in the sewing, knitting and the other household tasks that they did, even and perhaps especially that done by women of royal and noble households whose work was much better recorded.  It is a great shame that for much of the history of humanity, women have not had the opportunities afforded them to read or write that their male counterparts did, but more & more historians and writers are piecing together the lives of these great women through the work of their hands, noble and common.

In a number of posts here, I will share some research that I have done on one sewing technique or another that I have been introduced to in these historical novels (all categorized under HISTORY OF QUILTING).  Today it’s BLACKWORK EMBROIDERY- also known as SPANISH EMBROIDERY because it was brought to England by Cathrine of Aragon, the first wife of the infamous King Henry VIII.

Blackwork embroidery was something that I first became aware of when reading Philippa Gregory’s novel, “The Constant Princess,” which is the very sad, but absolutely entrancing tale of Cathrine of Aragon. (Note: this is an affiliate link.  If you purchase the book through Amazon, I may get a small commission from the sale.)

“The Constant Princess” begins by diving into some of the conquests of Cathrine of Aragon’s parents, King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella of Spain during Cathrine’s childhood.  I was fascinated by the description of how they took the palace at Alhambra from the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada (Arabs/Turks to my understanding) in what is now known as the Reconquista- (translated re-conquest).  I never knew much detail of the Christian Pilgrimages to take back land in or around the Middle East that had fallen to non-believers, being Jews and Arabs, but this telling gives the reader a some idea of what they were like & why they were fought.

The battles that Cathrine- the Infanta of Spain- saw her mother take part in and plan as a child shaped her for her role as Queen of England.  This book paints a picture of the warmth of the Spanish/Arab lands as well as the intelligence of the native people- their knowledge of mathematics & medicine- of cleanliness & regular bathing, which she finds rather lacking when she goes to England!  It also shows how her mother, Queen Isabella was every inch the ruler that her father King Ferdinand was, & how she had just as much to do with the conquests of their reign as he did.  Gregory’s book paints Isabella as a strong and decisive woman who prepared her daughters to be, not only queens, but rulers & even conquerers!


The story interweaves the strength of decisive women born to lead with the ability to still be associated with those things which we think of as soft & feminine, such as sewing & fine embroidery.  Queen Cathrine lead an army to victory & ruled a country in her husband’s absence (covered in the book).  She was the rod that kept him straight & on an even course for nearly 2 decades.  He only falters when he veers away from her.  She could do all of that- & influence a sewing style that would grace nearly every fabric surface in England & beyond for 200 years.

In our modern world, we tend to separate the strong women built for leadership roles from traditional crafts, like sewing and quilting, that are considered “soft & feminine.”  We have decided that any traditional art represents the weakness & subjugation of women, but they don’t have to.  Strong women can quilt.  Women who lead can sew.  One does not deter the other…


This is a bit of a soapbox for me, I suppose.  There was a video going around Facebook recently of a female Astronaut who was quilting in space.  (Awesome, right?!?)  I was dismayed & quite angry to find that she was utterly & completely ATTACKED by other women online for it!  Quilting was something she loved, something she was good at- & something she was scientifically testing to see how her hobby was different in space as opposed to on earth with gravity- and there were women there beating her down for it because it was a traditional craft.  Fortunately, there were many more women from a worldwide quilting family who were happy to jump in & try to help problem solve + offer encouragement & support.  They poured out a myriad of solutions & ideas for the road blocks she was running into with plenty of encouragement & admiration.  That’s what I love about quilting- everyone trades ideas & encourages one another.  That’s what women should do.  Quilting & sewing doesn’t make us weak- it makes us strong.

Back to the book!

The author often describes the daily activities of the women in Queen Catherine’s household- the sewing they did for the Church & for charity, as well as for babies to be born & family.  It is interesting to note that making things- particularly beautiful & highly skilled sleeves, embellishments & tapestries was the work of queens & noblewomen.  It was the work of women in leadership positions!  I also loved how the author noted the way these things were received when given as gifts & the difference a handmade gift could make in someone’s life- even someone as rough as King Henry.

Greggory notes that one of Henry’s favorite gifts from Catherine was a shirt with blackwork embroidery.  It was unusual to the English court, but quite beautiful & prized- a gift of culture as well as labor & love.

If we look at the history books, we can see that Henry was not the only person impressed with her native embroidery patterns & skills.  Blackwork embroidery spread quickly throughout the English court, decorating sleeves, hems, caps, shirts, and even cushions.  It was comprised of geometric stitches sometimes filling in floral outlines.  It can now be seen in more colors than just black- hence the name has shifted to reference the stitching style & not just the black thread on white cotton or linen design that it began as.

The painter Hans Holbein the younger- famous in King Henry VIII’s court at the end of Queen Cathrine’s reign & into that of Anne Boleyn’s- apparently also influenced the craft as the Holbein stitch (often used in blackwork) is named after him.

(Blackwork Embroidery Holbein Stitch on Shirt of Hans Holbein)

Blackwork embroidery seems to have reached its height of fashion during Queen Elizabeth’s reign a generation later.  It can be seen in paintings on dresses covering the sleeves, skirt, & bodice of many upperclass women as well as the queen herself.  When I look at pictures like that & think of how many hours it would take to stitch such intricate designs into a huge skirt or sleeve I can understand why it was a symbol of wealth.  Hans Holbein, the painter that one of the blackwork stitches is known for, by comparison only has blackwork stitching on his collar!


Queen Elizabeth Blackwork Dress

Mary Cornwallis Blackwork Dress


I wonder, but haven’t yet found examples of what Blackwork embroidery looked like before Cathrine of Aragon brought it to England.  I suspect that it has some Arab origins or influence because “The Constant Princess” references the geometry & mathematical knowledge of the natives of her country.  Many of the native patterns that were there prior to the Spanish Conquests were geometric in nature & Greggory’s book paints Catherine as one who LOVED the native culture of her land- including the geometric designs of the palace at Alhambra.


After having fallen in love with “The Constant Princess” & being entirely entranced with how the quiet work of Queen Cathrine’s hands influenced a nation & is still popular in many countries today (her military conquests aside!), I am determined to try mixing some blackwork stitching into my Yosaic™ designs.  Stay tuned for pictures!


If you’re interested in learning more about Blackwork Embroidery, here are a few books on Amazon to get started with. (Affiliate links)

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