Aug 8, 2020

Whale Blackwork Pattern

I've been working on some digital art!
This is intended to be a 12"x12" pattern (25 dpi) for blackwork, an embroidery technique that accomplishes neat shading effects with variations in fill pattern and line weight.

Embroidery pattern depicting a whale and fish

The intricate, repeating designs lend themselves well to lasso-selection and tessellation functions present in most graphics editing software. I used Paint.NET and aligned patterns to a grid by eye, but these could easily be procedurally generated. There's some interesting academic literature on the topic.
close up image of tail that shows shading effects from variations in fill pattern
For the tail and flipper, I used a single geometric motif and added or removed elements to change visual density.
Image of a geometric pattern that increases in complexity and shading from left to right
Motif and variations used in tail and flipper

For the main body, I used a rigging pattern in a foreground layer and varied elements in the background. This made blending styles between tail and body a bit easier, although the process also created some invalid line intersections that I had to manually clean afterwards.
Image of a geometric pattern with increasingly dense background patterns from left to right
Rigging motif and main background variations used in whale body

The eye pupil uses a uniformly-dense fill pattern in a relative swath of negative space to provide a focal point, although it does not register as "dark" as the tail or the star-shaped intersections on the back. The eyebrow uses long swaths of single lines (a rarity here) to get visual interest. 

In general, I found it difficult to guess a priori which patterns would strongly contrast versus blend nicely. The waves-under-the-netting at the belly took a few tries to get a vertical offset that didn't completely disappear behind the knots. I also had to delete a bunch of horizontal and vertical lines where this motif is used at the upper section of the whale head (compare with the back section of the body moving towards the tail) to avoid creating complete asterisks, which draw the eye away from the flipper and eye.

Image comparing body and eye pattern densities
Asterisk-intersections (left) used on the caudal section don't seem like they would conflict close to the eye (right) when zoomed in, but end up making contrasting dark pixels from zoomed out.

I was particularly happy about the subtle weave where the body's and jaw's rigging patterns meet. Looking back on it, some of the intersections need a bit more thickness where the ropes bend around each other. I also missed cleaning up some of the diagonals on the teeth that don't quite reach a grid vertex. Oops.

close up of the eye and mouth area of whale pattern
This art style is really cool and provides a lot of space to embed fun thematic easter eggs (the challenge for this project was to have mostly nautical fill patterns), so I'll definitely play around with this more. I would spend more effort finding or making a snap-to-user-defined-grid function before doing another large piece like this, though.


None of these fill patterns are mine. (minus basic things like the pupil and some shading variations)

Most of the constituent motifs come from Kim Brody Salazar's Ensamplario Atlantio vol I (the background fish and one of the geometric fills are derived from vol II), where her blog was also a fantastic resource for understanding what sewers expect from a needlework chart.

The eyebrow comes from paul_june's seamless-wave-pattern-vector and was modified to fit grid constraints.

The overall whale design is a riff off of HookLineTinker's "Deep Dive".  


  1. Cool design. One thing to note is that the non 90/180/45 degree lines can present problems in counted thread embroidery. The 1x2 "knights move" units are stitchable. Just. Although they are popular in modern blackwork, they can be leggy and loose compared to the standard 1x1 stitches.

    And I note that your design includes some other even longer eccentrics, especially around the eye. Some of them would be impossible to stitch accurately on standard grounds as single stitches on the count. It might be possible to work them as surface embroidery, ignoring the fabric's base grid, but for most countwork stitchers today who work on easy-to-see grounds like Aida, that would not be a welcome option.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comments! It's true that this design ends up being difficult to parse into individual stitches. But the friend who has been stitching this can report that the eye eccentrics have turned out fine -- although the washing + ironing step once the piece is complete will probably be even more of a delicate process than usual.