This post was originally in XStitch Magazine Issue 12: Noir, and has been adapted.
With a theme like noir, it should be no surprise that I want to talk about black. Black is a color that to a cross stitcher could mean the backstitching outline, it could mean the shadow of a figure, or even the stitching that makes something else stick out more. When it comes to patterns it takes another form, it can mean the black background of a retro video game monitor, the pupil of an eye, or even cables, wire, and metal parts.
But black is more than that. Black conveys a feeling. It can mean the sultry dark tones of a noir pattern, or it can be the looking darkness in the background ready to envelop the pattern. You see, black is a feeling, as well as a color. A feeling that has changed, drastically over the years. A color that has changed drastically over the years.
We’re going to start our story in the middle ages. Black was, of course around long before this, even as far back as protohumans using charcoal, but it was in the middle ages when black was first used as a dye. Without going too deep into painting, dyes were mixed with white paint, effectively dying the paint. This process mostly resulted in something we wouldn’t call black, a deep bluey, browny, grey color. It didn’t help that the dye itself was derived from things that weren’t black; roots, bark, and fruit. As a result, they’d layer these colors on top of each other, slowly getting darker and darker colors. Colors that simply weren’t real, weren’t in nature, and were, in the middle age mindset, the work of the devil.
In the middle ages, black was the color of the devil. It was reserved for religious paintings depicting the devil himself, which unlike his red color of today, was always black. Or, I should say more specifically, black was the devil. You see, black, or ater in Latin, was the same word for evil. Whilst we slowly adopted a new word for the color of time, black was simply the work of evil.
It’s somewhat ironic that the next time we see black in the world, it was on Monks. Back in the 12th century, after using the color to paint the devil for hundreds of years, a new source of black was developed. In some oak trees, more specifically around Eastern Europe and North Africa, small growths would form. These were actually an infestation of small insects laying their eggs within the fibers of bark, which in turn made the tree fight back, oozing a dark sap. This sap was actually yellow, but when dried, would start to turn black. And I don’t mean that weird black from the middle ages; I mean black. It was the first time that black was actually an obtainable color, and color that matched the sky.
For most, it was a great leap in painting, but the 12th century was… a little fraught between Monks. Flushed with riches and power, religion ruled and in turn became the struggle of power. It’s not clear who started the fight, but the Benedictine monks and the Cistercian monks didn’t get on. That is an oversimplification, but this is about black, not religion, so we’ll simplify slightly here. The Cistercian monks changed their look to stand out. All monks used to be robed in brown, but the Cistercian monks chose bright white to stand against the Benedictines, and they chose white as it was the opposite of black. Black was the devil’s work, so white was pure, sin-free, and innocent.
Therefore, the Benedictines gave black a makeover. They wore the color and accused the Cistercian monks of being flashy, only wanting pride from their whiter than thou robes. This was the first time that black had ‘changed its stripes’, it went from evil, and death-bringing, to pure, calming, and not flashy.
“The color black, is the most important color to cross stitch, because, without it, we could have cross stitch at all.”
But those oak apples I spoke of earlier; cost money. A lot of money. By the 14th century merchants bringing over the costly oak apples from far-flung lands were starting to get rich, and fearing the power this could bring, religion swung back at them. In order to keep them in their place, to stop them from climbing the social ladder, they banned color. They started with the bright peacock blues of Florence, but the merchants moved to red. So in turn red was banned. This, kept on going, until the merchants realized there was one thing they could do. Outspend the church. Black, still the most expensive of colors, was boycotted by the merchants. They refused to sell it to the church, raised the prices up, and instead donned the color themselves. Black became the color of resistance, the color of winning, and the color of the shred.
Black was a color that stood out on the streets of Italy, the exact opposite of what the Benedictine monks were going for. It became the color that everyone wanted. This, is where the importance of black really took off. As we all know, no one likes to be outdone.
Italy was all sewn up thanks to the merchant class refusing to sell the color, but that didn’t stop the export of black. Italian bankers would travel to Kings in Europe for business, but thanks to their vast riches, this was mostly the merchants. These merchants worse their black straight up to the royal palaces. The Duke of Burgundy was the first to don black, and in turn, started a massive push for black across Europe.
As the skill of dyers increased in Europe, the quality of black improved, and in turn, they were able to dye other things, like silk, and wool. For us cross stitchers, this part of the black story is the most important. With new black clothes, the power across Europe changed away from religion (who still weren’t allowed to wear black in Italy) to royalty, and in turn, they brought black to everyone’s eyes.
The current cross stitch history theory is that Catherine of Aragon, one of Henry VIII’s wives, brought blackwork from Portugal to England, and in turn cross stitch. We wouldn’t have cross stitch, if it wasn’t for the devil, fighting monks, insect invasions on oak trees, rich merchants, or a French Duke. The color black, is the most important color to cross stitch, because, without it, we wouldn’t have cross stitch.
Black has a wide range of feelings. It can be linked with death, mourning, evil, and darkness, but it can also symbolize elegance, wealth, restraint, and power. As a result, using black in cross stitch is more than just a backstitch outline, or a shadow to be ignored. But black also isn’t finished. Black has a story that’s still being written.
Thanks to carbon nanotubes, we now have Vantablack, a black so dark it traps light, and looks like a void. It didn’t take long for someone to turn it into threads, and whilst it’s so expensive it will be a long time before we see it in cross stitch, that day will come. A day when we stitch with something so dark it can’t be ignored. A day when black once again changes its stripes and becomes something else.
For many cross stitching on black aida, can be hard, but we’ve put together a great guide to help you out!