Redwork–Mine, Old and New

I fell in love last year.

I was at my quilt guild’s show. Among the antique quilts being shown was a quilt made up of many small panels with simple scenes, done in red embroidery.

Then I noticed two similar quilts, modern ones made by fellow guild members. Redwork quilts, all of a sudden, seemed to be everywhere!

As I looked at these quilts, and coveted the old one, something niggled at my memory . . .

I’ve mentioned that I go to garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and, like everyone who spends enough time at such places, I’ve found treasures.

In 2012, I bought a pile of old linens and fabrics at an outdoor sale. I was busy and distracted at the time but vaguely aware that, in the pile, I had picked up a redwork quilt for a dollar.

I remember seeing that it was in rough condition but figured I could cut it up and sell some of the blocks. It got put away, with stacks of other old linens, and forgotten.

But now my interest was piqued about redwork quilts, so I went searching for the quilt I’d bought.

I found that old quilt and looked at it carefully for the first time.

IMG_2747 (1)

Just one section–it’s so faded I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole thing!

It’s faded, it’s ripped and patched, it’s stained. In one block, the design has disintegrated entirely.

Version 3

It was finished in April of 1889.

IMG_2753And, to my 21st-century eyes, it is peculiar and quirky and wonderful.

If you went looking for redwork quilt designs today, you’d find countless patterns that look like they were designed by Disney.

My quilt looks much more like Grimm Brothers had a hand in it. The difference between the aesthetics of the late 1800s and the early 2000s couldn’t be more striking. The old quilt is hard-edged, sort of harsh, not at all cute, really quite gritty.

I love it. And it’s clear that it’s been loved before, and loved nearly to death. It’s fragile and unstable.

So I have decided to remake it, to preserve a version of it for a couple centuries more.

I have been using an inexpensive child’s lightbox to trace the redwork panels on to paper, so I can keep them. Then I trace from the paper version on to off-white cotton fabric.

As I trace and then stitch, I enjoy the designs. There are flowers, lots and lots of flowers.

And there are animals; some are the ones the maker would know from the farm and some are exotic, known only from books or dreams.

My favorite blocks, though, are the ones with the people, and, especially, children. The children depicted are not the cute and pampered and romanticized children of modern America but are serious and, often, awkward-looking.

A girl jumps rope.


Two boys blow bubbles.

The children in my quilt are all focused and intent. Only one panel shows a child with any hint of a smile—a small person (not especially childlike), listening to a large person read. She stands at attention; no cuddles here.

Looking carefully at these old panels has given me a lot to think about. Do these older quilts reflect a fundamental difference in the perception of childhood, then and now? We can’t attribute the differences to design ability or sewing skills—this seems to be a difference in seeing the world.

It’s true that, by the turn of the 20th century, the shift to gentler and “cuter” designs had already begun. Even then, the Sunbonnet Sue girl was taking over and designs by illustrator Kate Greenaway seem to have dramatically changed, and romanticized, the image of childhood.

Some stitchers chose one depiction of the world and others chose another, even as we do now, I suppose.

So, I stitch and ponder. This is slow stitching, a project with no deadlines, only for me.

I am trying to copy the old blocks precisely but realize that, without wanting to or trying, I am smoothing rough edges, making things “prettier” than they were. I am influenced by a 21st-century way of seeing without wanting to be.

I am thinking that I will, eventually, add some personal and modern panels to my version of the quilt, to let it reflect both centuries in which it was made. I’m thinking about a panel depicting an iPhone (because I love mine so!), maybe one celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote in the US, and, I hope, a panel celebrating the first woman president of the United States.

We’ll see. For right now, I have my plan and my focus. I have 40-some-odd blocks to do before I worry about moving back into the 21st century.

I’m curious about what you think of this old quilt. Do you like it or think it’s creepy? Find it interesting? Or is it ugly to your eyes? Do you prefer the cuter, softer images we see today? What kind of redwork can you imagine yourself doing?

As I’ve plunged, head first, into the rabbit hole of the Internet, I have found all kinds of redwork resources.

An amazing resource for old embroidery patterns, a catalog published in 1886 and including many of the designs in my quilt: New Sample Book of Our Artistic Perforated Parchment Stamping Patterns, from publisher J.F. Ingalls. Available as a free download.

Some of the Ingalls designs, reproduced on Flickr.

A blog featuring many great examples of redwork quilts and patterns.


50 thoughts on “Redwork–Mine, Old and New

  1. I do like the old quilt — the images are fascinating. And yes I believe they reflect a different view of childhood. Children these days (boy I sound old!) have few responsibilities and much looser expectations for behavior. Two ends of the pendulum swing, I expect.

    • I was thinking about the fact that none of the children are smiling . . . and wondering if it’s related to the fact that, in photos of this era, people didn’t smile because the exposures had to be so long. But then I think about much older painted portraits I’ve seen and realize that, in most of those people aren’t grinning either. Is smiling a modern phenomenon, do you think?

  2. What a treasure, what a history!!! And than you magically make it into this wonderful post! I cannot not wait to see this quilt finished and than afterwards, see your take on it. More magic in store. It is truly lovely, Kerry…and all for a pound! As a fellow treasure hunter, I am proud of you as well, xo Johanna

    • I felt like I was channeling my inner Textile Ranger when I found that old catalog! I need to spend more time with the catalog but I know I saw the design of the little girl covering her eyes in the book.

  3. I love the older images because they don’t sentimentalize childhood as much as the newer ones do. They seem quirkier and less likely to appear on greeting cards. But what’s going on with that stag? Is it being attacked by dogs? Or are those creatures supposed to be does?

    • I agree entirely–the modern, more cutesy images of children grate on me. I wish I could explain the stag image. It drove me crazy, while I was stitching my version, not to know what i was stitching! I *think* they’re dogs but . . .

  4. The old version is great, not creepy at all in my mind and it’s way cool that you are replicating it, what a lovely idea. I like your idea of adding in some contemporary images. I wonder what the next generation will think when they find your new quilt.

    • I’m surprised that most commenters really seem to like the old version–I was afraid people would think I was really odd! I’m glad I have plenty of time to think and plan before I decide what to do about modern images–I have lots of ideas but am not sure about them . . .

  5. I love the old version because it is not too sweet and cuddly. One thing that comes to mind is that the person may have drawn the images themselves. I remember making my own flower designs to embroider. So the images might not be as perfect as drawn by a professional. I can’t believe you got this at a garage sale.

    • I know, for sure, that some of the images came from a catalog of designs, one of the ones listed at the end of the post. But, having said that, the maker of the quilt would’ve had to trace the design, i think, and I’ve found from my own experience, that that can introduce a lot of variation into the design. If the person hurried, they would’ve had a rougher looking final project.

  6. Amazing project Kerry! It’s so interesting that you’ve found a major difference in not just the patterns but the way of life itself!!
    I’m honestly most eager to see the iphone block!

    • This project is going to keep me busy, and amused, for awhile, I think. It also gives me lots to think and wonder about. I’ll show occasional updates as I make progress!

    • I think it’s fascinating how many have said they like the older images! Maybe because they seem so authentic and different–we are inundated with “cute” these days!

  7. Yes, I too prefer these unsentimental images. When my mother spoke of her very early 20th century childhood, it’s clear she was expected to take on reponsibilities within the household at a very young age – whether it was going on errands to the village shop, or fishing flies out of the syrup jar (well, there was a war on). The children in ‘your’ piece clearly had to earn their playtimes too.

  8. I looked carefully Kerry, wondering if the images were hand drawn by a very young person – one maybe not well practised in drawing techniques. But I think the perspective is quite mature and shows a capable hand. The ability to draw in profile and action reveals this too. I wonder if this is the quilters first quilt – maybe it is the challenge of working the sketches into stitches that makes the faces especially a little sharp? Another thought is maybe an older person drew some of the figures and the younger drew some others? I think as you work on it you will get a feeling for any differences in style that arise.

    The different subject matters reveal a harsher life yes? The stag and hounds must have been a regular feature in the sewers life, the recreational activities were simple and shared and there are probably a number of regular chores included in some other panels too?

    Are there other examples of figure work from the same period that show the rounder, more sentimental figures?

    Personally I am wedded to the chubby, happy, sentimentality of the 20th century ……. but that’s just my feeling on it. 🙂

    Thank you for making me look at this more closely – for I would have dismissed it without your careful guidance – it really is quite wonderful and I am glad you will include in your remake some modern items and activities!

    • I have wondered all the same things you have! I did find some of the exact images (the one with the girl holding her arm over her eyes, for instance) in the pattern catalog I linked to at the bottom of the page. So, the pattern was commercially distributed but the “look” would’ve been influenced by the tracing of the design and the stitching. To me, the stitching on the old quilt, as well as the spacing of the designs in the blocks, looks hurried and fairly nonchalant. To be fair, though, the quilt is in such poor condition that it’s hard to know what it would’ve looked like newly finished. You can see that I have a lot to keep my mind busy, as I stitch!

  9. I love the mystery surrounding the history of the old quilt, and your ability to recreate the blocks is amazing. Your work is beautiful. 🙂 Now, I have to say I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to add a smart phone alongside these wonderful blocks. Two different worlds in my thinking, however, I’m guessing I’m probably the only one who thinks that way. Yes, I do have, use, and don’t want to give up a smart phone, but I love looking at your recreation of simpler times. 🙂

    • Thanks, Judy! The mystery of the quilt really intrigues me. I was so excited to see the date stitched in and I just wish the maker had included her name. I don’t need to make any decisions about iPhone or other modern images just yet–I have lot of old blocks to complete. My thinking will, no doubt, evolve as I continue. Maybe I’ll eventually just make a modern version as a parallel to the old one!

  10. I like the original – it’s honest and interesting. If I ever decided to embark on a project like this I would include little cameos of my daily life and also would try to include as many of the flowers, birds and insects I see around my home – very much like many of the original red-work embroiderers!

    • I’ve thought about that, too–what images would I include if I were making a new one, all from scratch. It could be almost a visual diary–I like that idea a lot. You should do it!

  11. Love the originality and simplicity of the original, compared to the sentimentality of the modern. HOw could you add an iPhone with the same directness? Maybe an iPhone with a picture of a quilt square on the screen…

    • Lucky for me, I don’t have to tackle the modern blocks just yet! And I’ll keep my options open. It occurs to me that I could put the modern images on the quilt back, like a little secret. Really, though, the quilt is so busy, with 42 panels, that I think it would take a viewer awhile to even find and notice a few modern designs!

  12. I absolutely love your old quilt. The line art is so honest, which I love. It depicts moments that are probably very true. I’m not a fan of the current version you showed as it all feels the same and just too sweet and contrived. What a wonderful treasure. The faded red thread is so lovely too.

    • I love the faded thread, too–can’t fake that look! When I chose thread for my version, I didn’t choose real strong red, like would’ve been used in the original. I went for a bit softer color, a little mellower, trying to at least to hint at the color in the old quilt.

  13. Wow…1889. It’s really in great shape considering it’s age. I like that the designs show a sign of the times. And I think it’s wonderful that you’re bringing it back to life 🙂

  14. I admire your scholarly and affectionate approach to these old crafts. Good for you to make this quilt last another couple centuries, perhaps adding a modern bit to the time capsule!

  15. I find the simpler figures of the old quilt uncomplicated and wonder if the maker was a rural woman designing her own blocks. It just reminds me of the matter-of-fact, practical decorations of a farm home. Your reproducing the quilt honors the original quilter!

    • In looking at the catalog of designs that I linked to at the bottom of the post, I am struck by how they all seem to look like what you describe–unsophisticated and practical, and yet offered commercially. The more I’ve read and looked, the more I think it really might be just a whole different aesthetic!

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