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Whitework is embroidery done in white thread on white fabric. Although this might seem dull, it is in fact incredibly intricate and detailed, and the rich patterns often show through to great advantage without color to serve as a distraction. Traditionally, it was done with linen thread on linen fabric, although modern examples of whitework in cotton, silk, and synthetics are not uncommon.
This type of embroidery appears to have emerged in Germany and Scandinavia around the 12th century, primarily for religious art such as altar cloths and ceremonial garments for priests. By the 16th century, schools of whitework had emerged in the South of Europe as well, with some very beautiful examples of both secular and religious work from Italy and Spain. The classic look of this craft has come to be associated with heirloom or traditional embroidery, and it is often used on garments like christening clothes which are intended to be passed down through multiple generations.
A number of different embroidery techniques can be integrated into a single whitework piece. The embroiderer might use pulled work, in which threads are manipulated within the foundation fabric to create designs, along with drawn thread, where threads are actually removed. Pieces of the foundation fabric might be removed for cutwork, or texture might be created with twisted hollie point.
Historians have suggested that this craft might arise from poverty, because poor nuns would not have been able to afford multicolored threads for their embroidery, but linen would have been available and affordable. It is hard to verify this claim, but it can certainly be argued that whitework has become its own unique and very valued school of embroidery, and fine pieces are often highly prized. When hand made, the stitching can get quite complex, reflecting hours of work and careful planning to execute the piece.
Basic whitework embroidery is easy for anyone who has learned and practiced embroidery. Additional techniques to create rich textures and patterns can be learned from sewing circles or embroidery groups. Many of these groups are eager to welcome new members who are interested in learning about these traditional crafts, and they will be happy to mentor excited learners. For people who appreciate whitework but don't want to do it themselves, handmade pieces are often available from craft and specialty stores, and commercially produced whitework is a common offering at department stores.