A Maker’s Abecedary: R is for . . . Redwork Embroidery

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It was simple and straightforward in style. It was easy to do. It could be personalized for self expression.

Is it even surprising that, for a brief, intense period, redwork embroidery took American women’s work by storm?

Like everything else—art, fashion, music, architecture—sewing and crafting styles change with the times and reflect different interests and aesthetics. Crewel embroidery is in, then it’s out. Everyone is doing macramé, then no one is.

In America, in the late 1800s through the turn of the 20th century, redwork stitching was all the rage. A huge trend, it was characterized by simple outline stitching of decorative designs, done on off-white fabric with Turkey red embroidery floss.

Coming hard off the fussy, overwrought Victorian era and the rage for crazy quilts, the understated simplicity of redwork seems to have been inspired by the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements.

Both movements focused attention on art for its own sake and for bringing beauty into the home. The Arts and Crafts Movement was underpinned by “the concept that a beautiful home was believed to reflect the morality and productivity of its inhabitants.”¹

The popularity of redwork was also explained, in part, by the availability of new Turkey red floss—Turkey red was colorfast and striking against a white or off-white background.

Add to that that redwork was stitched almost exclusively in one simple stitch, the stem stitch, meaning it could be done effectively by stithers at almost any level of expertise, and was a great way for children to learn to embroider.

The flame of redwork popularity was fanned by women’s magazines and by advertisers, both of which made zillions of designs available, either for free, to encourage magazine subscribers or advertising premiums, or as preprinted blocks, to be used in quilts. The preprinted blocks were sold for a penny, giving these blocks their alternative names—penny squares.

In the desire to create a beautiful and upright home, the trend was to cover everything with redwork; splash guards behind wash stands, chair backs, pillow shams, aprons—all were embellished with red embroidery.

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A redwork pillow cover, I think. I did read that such pieces were also used in coffins, though . . .

It was only a matter of time until women started assembling the penny squares into quilts or coverlets.

This was yet another way to add beauty to utilitarian objects and also to express one’s self, through judicious choices of the patterns available. A stitcher could create a bed cover with a personal garden of blocks with flowers, all of which had symbolic meanings ascribed. She could pick and choose blocks that had sentimental meaning only to her:

Many designs were of images or motifs thought to be closely associated with woman’s domestic experiences: children, animals, birds, flowers, nursery rhymes, characters from children’s fiction, household items, women’s hairstyles, and fashion accessories such as fans or purses.²

While many redwork quilts were a hodgepodge of designs, some had a consistent theme. There were redwork quilts made up entirely of Sunbonnet Sues, of nursery rhymes, of exotic animals, of Bible scenes. I’m not sure I could sleep under a quilt with the embroidery of “Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord” (Rev 14:13) but it must’ve been comforting to someone.³

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Antique redwork coverlet, owned by a member of my quilt guild.

Times change and tastes change. It was inevitable that the trend for redwork would wane and other styles would take its place.

But, as happens with trends, they can make a comeback. While the current popularity of redwork seems nothing to compare with its first incarnation, redwork quilts are popping up consistently at quilt shows. In 2015, the crafting website Craftsy trumpeted a “trend alert” with the “retro look” of redwork.

Where once there were mere zillions of designs available for redwork, now there are zillions and zillions! Where the designs were once hand stitched in the simplest of stitches, today they are just as likely to be done with machine embroidery. The contemporary designs are often quaint and homey, saccharine sweet, but can also be kind of funky, edgy, fun.

Redwork may be popular now for the same reasons it was over 100 years ago.

In a complicated and busy world, redwork is a simple and straightforward in style. When life is hard, redwork is easy. When it’s so easy to get lost in a crowd, redwork can be made one’s own, highly personal in the face of an impersonal world.

My own special interest in redwork began with a purchase at a garage sale . . . I’ll tell you about it soon!

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51 thoughts on “A Maker’s Abecedary: R is for . . . Redwork Embroidery

  1. I have some of my great-aunt’s embroidery from much the same period, only instead of being in red, it’s blue. Is this the British equivalent of the same idea, or just something my Great Aunt chose to do? Do you know?

    • From what I’ve read, red colorfast thread came first and then other colors so, yes, women did bluework and blackwork, etc., but later than redwork. And, though redwork, specifically, seems to have really been very American, some of the inspiration for doing embroidery in the home came from England. I read: “The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was seen by over nine million visitors and two of its exhibits had profound influences on styles and fashion in the United States. . . . The Royal School of Art Needlework from Kensington, England showcased ornamental needlework made by students at the school. Inspired by this exhibit, American Candace Wheeler formed the New York Society of Decorative Arts, which similar to its English counterpart, provided art training to increase women’s employment opportunities. Soon new decorative art schools and societies across the country were offering instruction in an array of decorative arts and new art journals provided information and instructions.” So, maybe the inspiration traveled from England to American and then back to England again?

      • That’s so interesting. Thanks for going to all that trouble. I suspect the embroidery I have dates from the very early years of the 20th century, though I can’t be sure, so that all fits.

  2. I love that redwork! I can’t wait to see what you’ve been doing with your redwork project which I saw you working on in the evenings at Vavstuga…I am still working on that pair of socks! But I have been doing some weaving as well 🙂

    • I think you’d enjoy doing it, Sheryl! It’s so simple and straightforward and portable, but the effect is really striking. And there are a LOT of patterns available on the internet–something for anyone’s taste. Regarding blackwork: from what I read, redwork came first because that was the first color thread to be colorfast, but then blue and black and other colors became available and women had choices!

  3. Stunning work and such fun historical facts, thank you! So simple as well. I’ve been reading about Wabi-Sabi aesthetic and looking more and more into the “less is more” ideas about home and art. I feel it calls to me. Maybe I’ll have to check a few of these patterns out.

    • Go on Pinterest and look at some of the patterns available. They options are endless. And the really cool thing is that it’s so easy to make your own patterns because they are simple–you can trace pages from coloring books or anything, really!

  4. I learned to embroider in such a style, only we could choose which colour to work in. I wonder if the one colour thing is related in some way – or just part of the austerity of post post-war handcrafts. Fascinating post Kerry!

    • I would think the one-color approach would be an excellent choice for new embroiderers so they could focus on the stitches and technique, rather than being distracted by color. And I think using one color can be very effective, too. So maybe some good came of post-war austerity.

    • I think I know about it because I’m a quilter and it’s making a bit of a resurgence in that world. Plus, it is so very American! But it is pretty and would be easy to adapt to almost any style!

    • I read that the interest in embroidery as a decorative art seems to have stemmed in part from the English exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia–Americans were impressed by British needlework! But redwork, specifically, seems to have really been an American obsession.

    • The all-black and all-blue were later, from what I read. Red thread was the first to be available as colorfast, then the others were developed. Can you imagine what a mess any of those threads would make, on white backing, if they weren’t colorfast?!

      • This is really interesting. I guess that I’d thought that people had “always” done embroidery – but this makes it sound like to became much more popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the introduction of colorfast thread allowed the embroidery of items that would need to be washed (bedding, dining linens, etc.)

  5. I’ll guess the redwork is all new again, partly because of the red and white quilt show 5 years ago. http://folkartmuseum.org/exhibitions/infinite-variety-three-centuries-of-red-and-white-quilts/

    My son has a quilt with blocks embroidered with nursery rhyme scenes. An aunt made it for him. The embroidery is fun, but the quilt itself is rather awful for construction. Someday (I hope) he’ll have kids of his own, and I’ll take apart that awful quilt and rebuild it to show the blocks off better.

    Thanks for the post. It was fun to see the pix.

    • Yes, that red/white show has influenced quilters in SO many ways! Re-making your son’s quilt sounds like a good project, if the embroidery is nice. I’m not sure why the redwork coverlets I’ve seen seem mostly not to have been quilted, but just left as single layers of fabric panels stitched together.

    • The older examples I’ve seen all seem to be stitched on simple muslin or fine cotton, although I imagine some people used linen. I’m doing redwork now on cotton–I did go to a quilt store and buy the best quality they had but it’s pretty basic.

  6. I have always wanted to take the time to look up the history of Red Work. Thank you for doing it for me. I love seeing all the beautiful designs. A friend did a bit on a kitchen towel for a Christmas gift a couple years ago. I hide it away from thoughtless hands and bring it out only for decoration. Handwork is so relaxing and though I’m finally getting back into it, have never done any work exclusively in red or a single color. It’s on my list and has moved up it thanks to all your inspiration here. Thanks. Looking forward to seeing what’s up your sleeve next. 🙂

    • I’ve really enjoyed the redwork I’ve done. It’s relaxing, because you’re just doing the one stitch with the one color, and I find it easy to see, even when my eyes are tired–I guess it’s because of the contrast in red and white.

  7. Kerry, as I read through your post, I thought how much I appreciate that you share the history of the work in addition to the photos.
    Your comment about the Blessed are the Dead quilt brought a smile to my face

    • I’m a fool for the history behind these crafts–I’ve absolutely lost myself in looking at info and examples of redwork lately! It’s so nice to have people to share all this with!

  8. These are such interesting pieces. As interesting to me are the changes in ‘fashion’ which your post describes so well. A fussy style becomes ubiquitous (I’ve been dying to use that term) then people tire of it and go for something simple, then that is replaced in popularity by something else.
    Chenille was big once. I’ve kept my old chenille spread, except it has two holes at one end so I turned it into a tablecloth and place the holey bit at the far end of the table, hoping whoever sees it has a sense of humour.

  9. Pingback: Redwork–Mine, Old and New | Love Those "Hands at Home"

  10. I never knew the history of redwork, and the reason the designs were worked in red. Very interesting that there’s a practical reason behind it. I can imagine going to the store to choose the penny square or to see if they had any new ones in.

  11. Pingback: Something for Everyone: A Quilt Show Tonight | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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