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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