Whitework in Cultures

Disclaimer: It takes years of study to correctly identify a particular technique and even the experts may not agree. The pieces shown in this article are not being identifiend as particular techniques but rather as general examples of whitework. To make the details show up better they appear more off-white or light tan.

Why was whitework so popular? Interesting enough, the evolution of laundry techniques provides some reasons why linen and clothing remained in a natural or bleached state. Washing boards or bats were created to help pound the cloth or help move the cloth around in the water. The clothes could also be stomped on with bare feet. While this practice was pretty common up until the mid 1800’s, it is still the method used in many poor and underdeveloped countries.

In areas where people burned wood, lye could be made from the ashes. Lye is a very harsh compound that is used to cleanse and bleach fabric. Bucking is the technical term for this method of laundry. As you might imagine, it was not a quick process. So, it should come as no surprise that laundry was gathered and done perhaps only once or twice a month. Because clothes were soaked in a cold or hot tub with lye, colored fabrics did not stand up as well.

"Spring cleaning" is nothing new. The women of the past called it the "Grand Wash" or "Great Wash". Again, it was a huge, lengthy process often involving tubs filled with lye water. The washed items were laid outside to dry, because the sun also helped bleach the fabrics. There was a specific area called the "bleaching ground" in early American and European villages. This was an area where the grass was cut short so the clothes could be laid out to dry. It was used by most of the town. Wealthy households had a private bleaching ground on their property. One method of drying smaller loads of laundry was to drape them across bushes and trees. Drying frames came into being and have been seen in 16th century art. Larger homes had drying frames that could be used inside if the weather was bad.

With the harsh soaps, hot water, and sun drying it must have been futile to keep dyed fabrics and threads from running. Certain fibers, such as linen, did not take dyes well and the tended to fade when drying in the sun. That is why undergarments were traditionally white. They could be hung outside to be freshened up until it was time for the laundry to be done. Also a person would change the undergarments regularly if they were able to have several sets. That meant the outer garments did not need to be cleaned as often. Often the outer garment would be completely disassembled so each piece could be attended to carefully. Those outer garments would be colorful with ornate trims and decoration.

Using this same logic, household linens would also be white or natural colors. The linens would be easier to maintain and could be laundered together. White or natural fabrics were pretty boring. People began to add embroidery and embellishments. This could explain why whitework embroidery techniques are found throughout history and around the world. Let’s take a quick tour of a few techniques.


Ayrshire Whitework is done with fine cotton thread on fine cotton muslin. The technique got its name from the county in Scotland where it became a commercial industry. Some of the stitches used are stem stitch, padded satin stitch, herringbone, blanket, eyelet and chain stitches. Drawn work is also used and the resulting open spaces are worked with intricate needle weaving. The work was done on christening gowns and undergarments, shirt collars and cuffs. It is interesting that the Civil War in America is thought to have contributed to the decline of Ayrshire work. The supply of raw cotton to Britain was cut off.


It is suggested that Broderie Anglaise was inspired by the embroidery of Czechoslovakian peasants. Another thought is it may have also evolved from Ayrshire, Scotland with the eyelets replacing the needleweaving. If you Google image search for Ayrshire whitework you will find many examples of broderie anglaise among them. This technique is easier to identify because the main design elements are done with pierced or cut eyelets. Cotton fabric was an ideal choice and a coarser, less expensive, cotton was available so even the poorer families could afford to have decorated linens and clothing. Because this technique was easier to do than others, it was easier to create machines to do the work. In fact, broderie anglaise was being mass-produced as early as 1870.


Venetian Lace dates back to the 16th century in Italy. It is better known as Richelieu cutwork named after the Prime Minister to Louis XIII who brought to France many Italian artisans to teach the French. There are several different styles of cutwork many sharing the same stitches but differing design elements. Richelieu cutwork began to be mass-produced in the 20th century. It is still a favorite technique for table linens in particular. Because so much of the fabric is cut, it is important to have a very fine count linen or cotton fabric. We are not talking 32 count, but rather 1000 count and finer. Traditionally, the threads would have had a matte finish like floche or Danish Flower thread. Patterns for cutwork were available in many women’s’ magazine until the 1940s.


Hedebo embroidery actually has several distinct periods. The technique is named after a region in Denmark. The oldest form is called "taellesyning" and dates back to the 16th century. It was a counted thread technique used to decorate clothing. Drawn thread started appearing in the 1750-1800s and was called "dragvaerk". Every second pair of threads was withdrawn in both directions of the fabric. Then filling stitches were used to create the patterns. The style we recognize today has more cutwork and less embroidery. This style is known as "udklipshedebo". The area to be cut is outlined with the Hedebo stitch, which is similar to a buttonhole stitch. However, the process is backwards to what most of us are used to doing today. First a running stitch is done around the edge and the fabric is cut. Then the Hedebo stitch is worked. One feature of Hedebo is the incorporation of stitched rings called Couronnes. The original pieces of Hedebo were stitched with a darker thread on natural linen, but the popularity of whitework caused the stitchers to bleach the fabric and the thread!


Madeira combines many of the above techniques together to create a style. Madeira is actually a Portuguese island. The fine handwork was discovered by Europeans who vacationed on the island in the 1800s. The primary stitches include the blanket stitch, eyelets, satin stitch, and some shadow work. Fine linen was used with a cotton thread such as floche. The important thing to know about this technique is it is still being done by hand as a commercial industry. An embroidery guild was established in the 1920s to set some standards. There is an inspection process before the individual piece is sold. It used to be marked with a silver tag. Today, there is a paper tag placed on the piece to show it is an authentic Madeira piece. There is a tag on the handkerchief that indicates this piece was handmade in either France or Belgium.


Schwalm is named after an area along the Schwalm River. Many examples of early Schwalm resemble Hedebo embroidery. One way to tell the two apart is that the Hedebo cutwork is surrounded by two rows of chain stitches. In Schwalm, the row closest to the cutwork is chain stitching, but the next row is coral stitches. Additional rows of stitching could then be added. The Tree of Life was often the inspiration for designs so you would see a lot of flowers, leaves, hearts, and birds. Read more about Schwalm.


Mountmellick is named after a town in Ireland. In the 19th century, this area was an artisan’s paradise with at least 20 different disciplines such as spinning, milling, and weaving. The motifs in the original designs reflected the hedgerows of the countryside. The fabric should have a shine to it while the thread should be matt. For those who do not like to cut, this is your technique as there are no eyelets or cutwork. The stitched design has a lot of depth and texture due to the use of knots and padded stitching. One distinguishing feature of Mountmellick work is the knitted fringe around the edge of the fabric. Read more on Mountmellick embroidery.

Hopefully this quick look at some whitework techniques will get you interested in looking at old linens.

We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!

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