Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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What Do You Call Whitework Embroidery done in Color?


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Sounds like the beginning of a corny embroiderer’s joke, doesn’t it?

It never fails – if I write about any kind of whitework on Needle ‘n Thread, I always get questions about whether or not it can be done with colored threads.

And that’s what happened yesterday, when I wrote about cutwork.

Cutwork Embroidery worked in Color

Cutwork embroidery can certainly be done in color. It doesn’t quite fall under the very general umbrella of “whitework embroidery” when it is, though.

I picked up the tablecloth above for my Mom’s table, off eBay. It’s cutwork. And it’s done in color.

If it were really good cutwork done in white on white on exquisitely nice linen, it would look much more formal than it does. But done in color (and in mediocre-quality embroidery, to boot!), it’s a nice, pretty balance between the formality of Richelieu cutwork and a plain embroidered tablecloth.

It’s a large tablecloth, and it came with 10 matching napkins, which is a little short of what we would use if my whole family were gathered. But still, it wasn’t a bad price, and the tablecloth, from a distance, is pretty. It works well on my mother’s table.

Of course, it’s prettier when it’s ironed. But…oh. Ironing. I have a strange, deep-seated aversion to ironing large tablecloths. And while I rarely mind going the extra mile for you all (in this case, it would have been the extra hundred miles!), I couldn’t bring myself to face it, just for a quick photo or two. Do you forgive me?

Cutwork Embroidery worked in Color

Anyway, the embroidery is mostly satin stitch, stem stitch, and running stitch, with cutwork bars and some drawn thread work in the middle of the central flower.

Cutwork Embroidery worked in Color

While the embroidery would have been time-consuming, and while it is certainly done by hand, it’s not professional quality at all. But I still like it. Embroidery doesn’t have to be perfect to be likable!

There’s no tag on the piece, and no remnant of a tag. So I’m not sure if this was a personal piece of embroidery worked by someone who was very persistent about completing such a large project, or if it was a cheap import at some point in time.

Who knows? Whatever the case, I still like it.

But this is the thing: this can be called cutwork. It can’t be called whitework.

Whitework embroidery done in color is called….

…wait for it….


So, for those who ask, “Can I use the same stitches in whitework embroidery, only do it in color?” or “Can I do whitework embroidery in color?”

My answer: Of course you can!

Just don’t call it whitework. Because it’s not. It’s embroidery.

If you employ cutwork in it, you can call it cutwork. If you employ drawn thread work in it, you can call it drawn thread embroidery. If you include openwork and needlelace and so forth in it, all in color, you can call it openwork. You can call it needlelace. If you take a “whitework” embroidery design from a book dedicated to whitework embroidery designs, and you stitch it all in color, you can call it embroidery. You can call it surface embroidery if you like.

But don’t call it whitework.

Whitework implies white threads.

Whitework generally implies white on white embroidery, but at a stretch, I’d say you can even do whitework on a colored ground fabric and still call it whitework. But you can’t do “whitework” in colored threads and call it whitework.

Why not?! you rightly ask. We do it with blackwork. We see blackwork all the time in color today, and it’s still called blackwork!

Aye. There’s the rub.

Well, this is the thing: the stitch and patterns used in blackwork are recognizable as belonging to blackwork.

But the stitches used in whitework of all types – what are they? They’re … buttonhole stitch, chain stitch, detached chain stitch, stem stitch, running stitch, outline stitch, French knots, satin stitch… the list could go on and on. They’re just surface embroidery stitches.

So what makes whitework whitework?

White thread!

The End.

Any opinion? Discussion input? Questions? Feel free to leave it below!


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(58) Comments

  1. That certainly is a happy looking tablecloth. I like it. It would brighten any Sunday meal.

    I also like your Mother’s chairs. Nice oak chairs…they look older. I like them too.

  2. I can totally agree with boxing in Whitework like this! That said I doubt I’ll ever attempt an all white piece (forget white-on-white entirely) I’ve spent one third of my life in a hospital bed, I have a major aversion to white! Wedding dresses excluded of course.

    The idea of doing cutwork makes me feel like having a seizer! For it to be worthy of all the time and effort one must be far closer to perfection than I.

  3. G’day Mary, and ha ha Robert B, I was going to comment on the chairs too! Nice American Spindle Backs with 8 spindles to boot! I presumed too that they are original. We don’t usually see that pattern here in Australia. We used to have a nice set but had to sell when moved in with my parents to be able to look after them better. I’ve kept the rocking chair though.
    Ummm…the embroidery. Yes, very nice! : )
    And thanks for the informative information on same.
    Cheers, Kath.

  4. While I agree with your definition of whitework, I was a bit taken back by the comments “mediocre-quality” and “not professional quality”. I spend hours working on embroidery projects (or paintings or quilts) to give as gifts to my family and friends. I freely admit that they aren’t perfect works of art, but I would be crushed to hear the receiver call the item mediocre or not professional quality when every stitch is done with love and thoughts of the receiver. In 1969 my sister and I started a set of placemats and napkins to give as a gift to my mother. We each did four mats and four napkins. We used the same stitches and same threads but obviously our sewing styles are different. It took us two years to finish the complete set. We knew the set wasn’t perfect, but the tears in our mothers eyes made it so. Forty years later when we had to downsize my parents house and start the sorting process, we found those placements and napkins, still wrapped in the tissue we had put them in years before. My mother’s comment, “They were to nice to get dirty so I saved them for you.” Maybe the embroidery stitches are crooked or off center but to someone’s mom or friend or child that table cloth was perfect.

    1. Well, I mean that in terms of what people would say – especially collectors of fine linens – if they saw the embroidery on this particular piece. Collectors or sellers of those exquisite pieces of heirloom linen that go for thousands would not really consider this particular tablecloth as prime material for their market. But that doesn’t matter to me – I like it and my mom likes it, and that is what mattered to me. Plus, admittedly, that’s why it was affordable. I’m not knocking the embroidery or the embroiderer, just stating a fact that the embroidery on this particular piece is rather mediocre and certainly not professionally done. It’s not something that was done, for example, by some professional embroidery house in Europe, for the high-end market. That doesn’t make it any less likeable in my mind, though.

    2. A very late reply:
      But these are not linens made for the recipients (Mary’s mother); it isn’t the recipient judging the quality of the work.
      When I am buying something, I can appreciate that the person making it may or may not have been doing that with love. I am “out of the loop” so I can impartially judge the quality of the work.

  5. Ah Mary, When I looked at your title question I answered to myself, Embroidery! Then I started listing all of my arguments in my head why it couldn’t be called Whitework. By the end of the blog you had repeated all of my arguments here on this page. Your mother’s tablecloth is quite pretty. I think I would need to see it in person though. To me there is something jarring about the red with the other colors which appear almost pastel. like I said before I could pass judgment I would want to see it in person. Since that isn’t going to happen I’ll take your word for it. I like red. I have a yellow and red kitchen. I couldn’t ask for a cheerier room to cook or bake in. I collect old needlecraft magazines. Through the 60’s you could buy kits, including huge tablecloths stamped on linen or cotton or a combination of the two. It was in the 70’s that all the kits went to poly/cotton. You can still find table runners, or 35″x35″ tablecloths to do surface embroidery. They are always imported from an European country, but what I have bought the materials have been heirloom quality.

  6. Love your explanations about the various types of embroidery; especially useful when searching on the internet for something specific. My question, however, has to do with light-boxes. I am considering investing in one, and I would value your opinion as to size and type. Many Thanks!

  7. There you go again, Mary, re-naming things! I believe you’ve got a rebel spirit hidden beneath those heirloom stitchery pieces! Whitework is so named because the thread and ground are white, so it appears as woven openwork and of jacguard looms. And Blackwork is supposed to be reversible threadery on sheer fabric. So, in my opinion, “Blackwork style done in red”, for example, is fine. But Whitework done is color is not! Perhaps YOU can Christen it as a technique? Love your columm !

    1. Hmmmmm…. That was my point! Though I have seen forms of whitework done on other than white grounds – Madeira whitework, for example, done on pale blue, or open work stuff done on ivory, etc. It’s still called whitework and fits under the general umbrella, despite the not-white ground. However, you can’t take “whitework stitches” (which are pretty much any typical embroidery stitches) and work them in color and call it whitework or even “whitework technique in color” because the stitches and techniques are not necessarily specific to just whitework or recognizable as belonging to “just” this technique or even “typical to just this technique.” Maybe I didn’t make the point clear, or maybe it’s just the mention of not-white ground fabrics, but I hope that clears it up!

    2. Yes, it is clear. And I agree that the palest shades of blue-ish white or creamy whites with white thread sits under the same umbrella. Come up with a name for it, why don’t you, Mary – or take a vote! I want to reply to Candy L. Don’t you believe in quality standards? If you make a purchase I’m sure that you expect good quality. A child’s school art placed on a fridge might bring a mother to tears yet never pass the “mediocre” mark. I think we all understand Mary’s message here in that regards, right?

  8. Woww what difference between WHITE WORK and the colored whitework/colored embroidery ????
    True whitework is so elegant..
    Love your emails

  9. Thank you for your views and I agree with you. It only makes sense that cutwork done in color cannot be called whitework. One just has to look at a piece done in whitework to see that there is a difference…and it is the COLOR. All cutwork uses basic stitches and then there are some that seem to have other stitches added. I haven’t done any but I am getting itchy to try some but I someone who likes color and lots of it!

  10. LOL, yes, I just love to stir the pot. What if you have a dyed linen and use the same color of thread? I guess we could just it what ever color we are using. I was just thinking of a nice coral so mine would be coralwork. We would have to come up with another name if it is red or black though! I love your tablecloth. It reminds me of some cutwork pillowcases I did for my mother while I was in college a looooog time ago.

  11. You have the best sense of humor! Great blog as always. It’s thorough, great pictures, just excellent in every way! I really enjoy your newsletter!!

  12. I think this is a piece of Madeira embroidered linen as the design looks very familiar. I have one of their famous peacocks done in ecru. We have never called it whitework only Madeira embroidery. Those women went nearly blind in those days and only do them today as a special order. They are very expensive and cost a few thousand Euros. So those of us who obtained them passing through Madeira in the sixties were very lucky. So treasure it…

    1. Thanks, Jean!

      I’m pretty sure this is not Madeira. It’s just not the quality of Madeira work. It’s done on a mixed ground (linen cotton blend) and was probably a stamped kit of some sort, or an import from China. 🙂

  13. Mary
    The difference is already in the name. Whitework in English but white embroidery in France . Whitework can be colored but not white embroidery because it bears his name. Then comes the style of embroidery, embroidery employs almost exclusively white padded satin , drawstring point , the point of sand, lace (some monograms ) and some lace stitches to the needle and we can also notice the drawings this is not the Richelieu embroidery . This comes from the work done by our ancestors always Excecute on linen or fine cotton and more or less white. White embroidery France must meet certain selection criteria . My grandmother , great embroiderer nevertheless a splendid embroidered linen tablecloth pink faded white embroidery and it is superb. I’m crazy about this kind of embroidery and drawings with delicacy .
    Marie thank you for this forum , I am an assiduous your course , your words and I love to read the conversations of other non- French embroiderers. We all have many common points.

    1. Thanks, Florence! So glad you enjoy it! And thank you for the input about whitework! It is good to have many perspectives from different cultures, to round out the discussion, so it is very appreciated,!

    2. Marie,
      It is me thank you, it is the first I see a web site very, very alive for embroidery,and you are this women!.

  14. Mary,
    Thank you for the clarification about whitework. I have just finished a class of a whitework sampler, but did not use white thread, so now I will call it embroidery.
    In regard to your message yesterday about cutting the cutwork so that none of the ground cloth sticks out, my teacher did not explain this and when someone asked about it in class, she still did not explain how to do it properly. It would be nice to have one of your videos demonstrating the technique–your videos are fabulous. Or even a written description. I gues at a minimum you need a very sharp pair of scissors. Maybe a particular type of scisors works best–like a curved pair.

  15. Mary, you are forgiven for not wanting to iron the tablecloth!

    I also have a great distaste for ironing table or bed linens. With a wringer washer EVERYTHING had to be ironed, and my mother decided that I should be the one to do the linen ironing. I sat on the kitchen table with the ironing board in front of me, and the linens dragging on the floor.

    1. *Sigh* my sympathies are with you!

      One of these days, I’m going to invest in one of those table tops that are ironing board surfaces – or make one myself. I know quilters use them, and my sister has one and loves it. Well, saving pennies for it, anyway!

  16. Mrs. Corbet,
    The tablecloth is very. . .happy! I like it. And of course I’m sure we can all forgive you for not ironing. Sometimes I don’t feel like ironing, myself. Thanks for sharing with us and have a great weekend 🙂


  17. Oh, Mary, this made me laugh out loud. 🙂

    “Wait for it…” I love it when your sense of humor peeks through your writing and conveys such a winky kind of teasing and timing. So fun!

    I’m enjoying the discussion this morning. It’s an interesting question of how to categorize and label this kind of embroidery.

  18. Good Morning, Mary. That tablecloth is very happy and your Mom is glad to have it cheering up her table. I, too, have bought various items of embroidery from eBay that have been lovingly embroidered but not of a professional quality and, in my family, only I know the difference (but my wallet knows, as well!). I agree with your definition of the embroidery. It is embroidery with some cutwork. I agree with Lois that a video demonstrating the technique of trimming cutwork without the whiskers would be an excellent video because until one has seen it done, like tatting, sometimes it is best shown. And I DEFINITELY agree with you about ironing! I am positive that is why embellished linens went out of vogue when, economically, it was no longer feasible to employ a laundress. I guess you could say I’m in a very AGREEABLE mood today, 😉

    Enjoy your weekend!

  19. Aloha Mary,
    Totally agree about the terms of whitework vs. embroidery.
    Just in case you have to iron it, put the ironing board nest to a bed so the ironed portion can rest flat on the bed and not get wrinkled.
    If that is hand worked, it must have taken some long time. I am in the process of hemming an altar cloth that is 27 ins. wide by 163 ins. long. It is taking a some long days to get all that done. Thanks goodness for lighted magnifiers.
    The “feel” of the linen makes it bearable. It would probably be beautiful done in cutwork.
    Maybe one day…

    1. Not sure why they aren’t coming through for you, Velia – they’re working on this end. If it came in your email, it could be your email settings? I’ll look further, though, to make sure. Thanks for letting me know!

  20. Well, my take on the subject is a little different from yours, Mary. I’m happy that white work is not more than all one colour, fabric and thread, but I would be happy to let any matching-colour stitchery into the ‘whitework’ catchment – cream on cream fabric, blue on the exact self-same blue, etc. In other words where thread and fabric match, so that the only contrasts are stitch texture, thread texture or the holes from cut, pulled or drawn threads. I’d even go as far as to say you could have black-on-black whitework if you really, really wanted to – a centrepiece with lacy cutwork on a white marble tabletop might be stunning in the right setting (but very hard on the eyes to stitch).
    Whitework: all in one single colour of thread on the same colour, with the structure of the stitches and the treatment of the ground fabric making all the variations; blackwork: all in one contrasting colour of thread to the fabric, with the thickness of the thread and the density and placement of the stitches making the tonal variations in the piece and with no cutting or pulling of the ground fabric. But that’s just my personal opinion of where to draw the borders. And the ‘borders’ of styles and techniques overlap and drift quietly into one other, so they are always going to leave space for people to disagree cheerfully, and so make us think about our craft and how many ways there are to do it and to look at it.
    And what better way to do it than in a lazy discussion over lunch, across a pretty cutwork tablecloth?

    1. Sue makes a good point here – monochrome embroidery in thread that matches the fabric colour is not the same as multicolour embroidery that contrasts with the ground fabric. I do wonder, though, at the need some people feel to limit and categorise styles. (Blackwork, for example, doesn’t have to be black, reversible, or monochrome – even historically – but it does use geometric counted thread patterns in colours that contrast strongly with the ground fabric.)

  21. Dear Mary

    Like you I have deep seated aversion to ironing in general so I can understand you not going the extra mile, although it looks fine on the table. It’s a pretty tablecloth and I like the different colours used on the embroidery and the chairs are lovely as well. I will have to try this on my next project which will be a children’s cloth ABC book as a lot of my great nieces are talking about babies so I will have to get sewing. Thanks for explaining the difference between whitework, cutwork and embroidery I always learn a lot from you Mary.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  22. 😀 I absolutely love this answer!

    Thank you, Mary, for taking the time, every day, to post something for us and to share your experience and knowledge.

  23. Many years ago, Husband and I were looking to buy a house. The back yard was a postage stamp, the pipes PVC, but we could dream. The show home was furnished. Wayne opened the freezer part of the fridge and commented, “Look, honey, lots of room for your tablecloths!” The salesman just rolled his eyes, as though to say “You get all kinds!” I’ll never forget the look on his face. I had been stationed with the Air Force in Spain where I collected several lovely hand-embroidered linen luncheon cloths. I had another from Germany, a couple vintage thrift shop treasures, and a French one from Mom when we married. The best way I could hold down a job and enjoy my pretty linens was to sprinkle them quite damp, roll tightly and store in a plastic bag in the freezer. I saved an old GE iron that got really hot, and when there was some good TV or “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio, I would undertake the ironing. For touching up clothes with a little steam, I had another iron. Thanks for that memory, Mary! Thanks, too, for this community!

    1. I can remember my mother doing this. Though she didn’t roll them up as the fridge/freezer at the time was in the 50’s. Most of them had the freezer inside the fridge and were quite small. She would make a tidy bundle and stick it in. They always looked so nice. I cannot find the old kind of starch either. I keep my tablecloths in a bureau. I do my ironing on Tuesday just like the old rhyme. If I don’t have as much some weeks I will get out a tablecloth and iron it. A couple of decades ago I had a couple of things cleaned at the dry cleaners. I don’t even remember what they were. They came back on extra large padded hangers. So now when I iron a tablecloth I only have to fold it once lengthwise and drape it over the hanger. It’s nice to have a couple ready for guests and not have to worry about that last minute ironing. I read once that Emily Post said one or two fold lines going lengthwise down a tablecloth were perfectly fine, but you should never have a fold going crosswise. Of course I might have read this twenty years ago. Who’s to say what’s proper now?

    2. Thank you for the memory. My mother washed almost every other day. She would dampened all the laundry that she was planning to iron with starch water and put it in the vegetable bin in the bottom of the refrigerator and iron it on Saturday. We had a kitchen garden so she did not need the vegetable bin because she picked stuff to fix for meals and at the end of the season it was all picked and canned or given away.

  24. You know something? About the tablecloth you bought for your mother? They are exactly like the ones we still could buy in the 80s made in China. I bought a couple in Panama, not exactly like the one you show, but my mother used to have one almost exactly the same.

  25. This made me laugh. Yes its cutwork but not whitework. Whitework refers to any embroidery techniques that are stitched using the same colour as the background fabric. Traditionally this was white linen. Hence we refer white on white as whitework.

  26. Oh Mimi you bring back memories,my mum would use boiled starch, dampen the tablecloths roll them tight and put them in the freezer or fridge. They would come up beautifully, Ihave done this too listening to a talking book! But a couple of years ago Ifound I couldnt find the old fashioned starch which gives a far better finish than the spray stuff.
    Thank you so much for your sight Mary Ilove it and have missed it so much while I was off the air. Embroiderers are the most generous people in the world They have helped in so many ways to get my mojo back,including good vigorous discussion

    1. Well, Chris, Australia now seems a little closer, a little less like another world. I get Bryce Courtenay on audio books at audible.com, loved “Four Fires” and the brother whose fancy needlework took prizes under his mom’s or sister’s name! But a couple of people mention starch; this brings up a question for Mary: should table linens be starched at all? I don’t starch. I like them smooth. Soft is fine by me. Seems like starch would weaken the fiber.

  27. Marie et les filles
    When you buy from a table, they always say the seller if you wish coffee table or dinner , right? In France for embroidery in general, we also specify the thing . We make a distinction between different kinds of embroidery because they all possess something typical . And the white embroidery is made only with white thread on white fabric, but it was agreed that we could carry on fabric usually pretty light blue or pink , though it is on white linen or cotton with enough features drawings, specific , yes, the white embroidery is done . For example will look suarez.com marie is a fine example of white embroidery in the pure French tradition , she is Belgian though … When was the first time I read whitework , I did not understand because it plenty of whitework …. where my desolation in addition to the language barrier . I do not know what you meant . I prefer the French tradition , what could be more normal! And examples for other kinds of embroidery is not lacking. Not forgetting the points that are often linked to the same types of embroidery.
    I hope I have not bored you too much with my language specifications and many French words I admit.
    Hugs to all

  28. This reminds me very much of a tablecloth my mother bought for me a few years ago from Madeira. Traditionally Madeira work was white or White and blue. In recent years colour has been introduced to make it more appealing to modern tastes.

  29. Thank you, I’m glad to make you smile. I thought that Sarah is a very young embroiderer. If she wants to later realize such an organizer pocket-night dress and she wants to do it in white embroidery, if she does not know exactly what it is, how? I do not agree to put everything in the same bag and I carry a book in blackwork not do red, it is called a variant and it is good to know Sarah. History is there and we need to transmit properly, so no, not whitework color.
    Annuler les modifications

    1. Oh, I understand that whitework must be done with white thread. It isn’t WHITE work if you use coloured threads. I agree that History should be transmitted properly.
      I am learning the French language in school. But I haven’t gotten very far.

      Merci, Florence A.

  30. Sarah,
    Thank you Sarah thank you to answer me and if you have any worries in french I can help you there is no problem, I know that this language is difficult, I remember my younger years … I give the authorization to Mary to send you my email address. You’re lucky to have such a teacher as embroidery Marie, it’s really nice.

    1. Thank you for the offer, I really appreciate it. You are very kind. But my mother also learned French and she will be able to help me if I have any trouble 🙂


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