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


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.


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


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!


Killing It Softly: Shattered Silk

IMG_2095It’s beautiful. It’s romantic.

It’s dying. It’s incurable.

It’s tragic. It is doomed.

It begs for its story to be told, even as the story comes to a sad, inevitable end . . .

My mother bought a box of vintage linens for me recently, a box full of damask and lace and elegance.

In that box, in a plastic bag, was a garment, a nightie or a slip, and it was so lovely. Soft peach-colored silk with pin tucks and filet lace and a pointed handkerchief hem.

IMG_2092Just seeing it sent my imagination awhirl. The young woman who wore this—who was she? When did she live? What was her story?

Well, she probably lived in the northeast United States or Quebec. She was here, and wearing pretty things, in the late 1800s or early 1900s. She had enough money for quality silk, at least for this one special item.

Could I learn more by looking at the details? I pulled the lingerie out of the bag, opened it up, and . . .

It shattered. The silk began to shatter and each touch, each movement, made it worse.

It didn’t shatter like glass shatters, into a thousand brittle pieces that scatter and cut you and make you bleed. It shattered as only fine old silk will, into creeping tears in the fabric that appear from nowhere and grow and multiply and break your heart.

IMG_2090 IMG_2086As I understand it, the very quality of this item was its undoing. The seeds of its end were there from the beginning.

According to the Pragmatic Costumer, old silks were created in ways that guaranteed their demise. She notes that, “During the 19th and early 20th centuries, silks were often treated with metallic salts to give them fabulous weight and a pearly sheen.” Because silk, unlike other fabrics, was sold by the weight, the heavier it was, the better. Metallic salts gave silk the heavy lushness and “rustle” that spoke of money, class, and quality.

But those same metallic salts ultimately destroy the fabric. Old silk fans shatter along the fold marks, a man’s silk tie shatters at the knot, the silk patches in a crazy quilt shatter and disappear while the cottons and wools stay strong. Slips and negligees and lingerie shatter when they’re handled.

Every time I move this silken beauty, I hasten its death, killing it softly with my touch. I can’t save it; there are no conservation methods. I can only take pictures to remember it by. And tell its story so it won’t be forgotten when it’s gone.


A Maker’s Abecedary: A is for . . . Alphabet Sampler


Samplers from the collection at Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

One of the wonderful things about being a maker is the choices we have available about what to make. Depending on your interests, values, and aesthetic sense, there’s a craft or art form for every taste, from A to Z.

As our hands shape our chosen materials, we are shaped by the work we do. This was perhaps never more apparent than in the tradition of girls and young women making needlework samplers, especially in early America.

These samplers taught so much—the alphabet, the building blocks of literacy, and often a moral precept, but also focus, concentration, and amazing eye and hand coordination, especially considering that simple samplers were stitched by girls as young as five or six. Eleven- and twelve-year-old girls made elaborate samplers, with superbly tiny stitches that would challenge you and me.

Just as the samplers taught the girls much of what they knew, they also teach us much of what we know about these girls and of women and their roles in these early years. Even the names of woman were rarely recorded in official ways in the 17th and early 18th centuries and so much of women’s work was work that was regularly undone and didn’t last.

Food was prepared and was consumed, and more food needed to be made. A home was cleaned, a bed was made, a garden was tended and all needed to be done again the next day. All were relentless, repetitive works in progress, with no lasting artifacts to remind us of the names and contributions of women.

So, in our abecedary of craft forms, it’s appropriate that alphabet samplers come first, since they were the craft that came first for young girls and because they provide tangible evidence that women make.

All alphabet samplers are samplers but not all samplers were alphabet samplers, or training tools for that matter. It seems that the earliest-known samplers were a way for women to collect stitches—a sort of cloth and thread library of stitches they could refer to.

Women didn’t have printed instructions, much less the Internet, to learn from so, when they saw a stitch that was new to them, they would stitch it on cloth, as a reminder. This sampler of stitches was added to over a woman’s lifetime and examples of these collections survive from the 15th and 16th centuries.

It was probably only a matter of time until these collections of stitches turned into something of a competitive sport and samplers evolved as more elaborate and showy, a way for a woman to show off a little, as seems to have happened in 18th- and 19th-century Europe.

These showy samplers didn’t make a lot of sense for European women who came to North America, though:

the settlers in America had a new wilderness to conquer and the need for elaborately decorated linens and clothing was not a necessity to them. What was common luxury in ‘civilized’ England was not important in the new land.

What was deemed necessary in early America was the education of girls to become resourceful and pious women, and good wives and keepers of a home. The alphabet sampler was an important aspect of this education. The alphabet sampler, while not original to the United States, was certainly embraced by new settlers of the English colonies, to teach their girls.

From 1645, when the earliest-known American sampler was made by Loara Standish of the Plymouth Colony, girls spent hours of their days, producing stitched alphabet samplers. It seems amazing to me that young girls, usually between the ages of six and twelve, had the coordination and concentration to make these stitches. Can you imagine any 10-year-old you know handling this task?

These samplers were teaching tools, giving girls a way to learn and practice stitching, letters, coordination, and lessons in morality. They could then demonstrate their ability to mark linens, in order to keep track of them in a household, as well as demonstrate piety and values to possible husbands.

The completed work was usually framed and hung in the parlor, proclaiming the maker’s obedience, patience, and skill. . . . The verses found on many samplers reinforced these messages, emphasizing the importance of female virtue, the value of education, and obedience to one’s parents and to God.

That so many alphabet samplers survive, even though they are made of relatively fragile threads, gives us a good sense that the women who made them treasured them. And why wouldn’t they? The samplers were evidence that a woman could make a mark that would last, unlike so much of the work assigned to women in those years. The permanency of thread on linen, along with the name of the maker, gave many women the only tangible item that might outlast them.

The simple designs of these samplers are still treasured by needleworkers, who reproduce the designs faithfully from patterns offered for sale. Today’s patterns connect modern stitchers to a long, homely tradition:

Make it.

Learn from it.

Sign it.

Cherish it.


For more information about samplers, including alphabet samplers, and many images visit Antique Samplers.