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!


Fiber Is Good For You!

We had a healthy high-fiber experience, a glorious autumn day in the Adirondacks!

Not this kind of fiber, silly!


by Richard Cocks

This kind!


The Southern Adirondacks Fiber Festival took place this weekend and was a gathering of wool-loving, fiber-lusting hands at home.

The focus was on all things wool, for all wool fanatics.

Lots of sheep:IMG_8457 IMG_8556

And other wool-bearing animals:

Dogs that keep the sheep under control:

Shearing, provided by Jim McRae, professional shepherd. He owns the dogs, too!

What do love most about fiber?




To spin it?

Or my favorite spinning technique!

For weavers, knitters, felters, crocheters, rug hookers . . . for us all. So much wool, so much pretty, so very many loving hands!

Buying New or Making Do?

fabric and threadIt’s time to start a new project!

How will you approach it? Will you buy new or make do?

Will you shop for the love of shopping and stockpile fabrics, yarns, beads, foodstuffs on speculation? Will you choose a project, and then go looking in the stores for the perfect materials? Will you look at what you have on hand and plan a project from there?

And, if you choose the latter, will you feel you’ve settled for less?

As a maker, I’m faced with these kinds of decisions all the time and, honestly, my first instinct is to go to the fabric shop or the craft supplies website and shop.

I’m trying to consciously re-evaluate that impulse. When I wrote a post recently about why do we do the things we do, I got thinking about all this and about what motivates me to make. Two of the things I mentioned were that I liked to solve problems and I liked the idea of connecting with people who came before me.

What I didn’t say, but a commenter did and I realized it applies to me, too, is that making things is a way to step outside my reliance on “store bought” and to make do with what I have and what I can make.

Our consumer culture has taught us to buy, not just finished products, but also lots of pretty materials with which to make things. We buy fabrics and craft supplies the same way we buy electronics and clothes and home décor items. We choose new and plentiful over that which we already own.

Sometimes we don’t bother to choose at all; we buy it all.

But, you see, I’ve always been disdainful of this consumer culture. Or at least I talk that talk.

When you get me talking, I’ll say that one of the things I admire most about vintage handmade items is the evidence of “making do” that resides in the pieces. I love old quilts that are imperfect because the maker used scraps or obviously ran out of fabric and substituted another one instead of buying more.

I love reading an old recipe, with notes in the margins about substituting ingredients.

I love the idea of dividing and otherwise propagating new plants from the ones I already have, to fill in the bare patches is the gardens.

Making do leaves its own marks of loving hands—I look for those marks and they make me smile.

My love of these things reminds me that, when I myself am gathering materials for a project, I should look around at what I have to work with. I should more consciously walk the walk of making do.

This isn’t easy for me. I realize that, to some extent, I’ve unlearned the ability to make do, or perhaps I’ve never really learned it to begin with. And I also think that, in our minds, “making do” equates with “settling for less.”

I wanted to make do with my last weaving project. I wanted to make dishtowels and I wanted to use material I had on hand, from the stash of yarn we got when we bought the secondhand loom.

If I had bought new yarn, the packaging would’ve told me how many threads to use per inch, based on the weight of the fiber. But I used what I had, made a guess about how many threads, and ended up with pretty striped fabric that more closely resembles mosquito netting than dishtowel. I felt like I had settled for less.

Disappointed, I immediately decided I would buy new, “right” yarn, and re-do the project. But wait! Maybe I should use what I still have on hand and figure out how to make do and make better! To do so would give me the chance to a) solve problems, b) connect with people who came before me and who had to make do, and c) step out of the cycle of buying more.

Hey! Those are the things I claimed motivate me to do the things I do! Walk the walk, girlfriend, walk the walk.

I could learn a lot from my foremothers, whose choices were constrained by practical considerations. They often made their choices from what they had on hand and re-used scraps of old fabric or used ingredients available on the farm to decide what recipe to make. They used highly developed problem-solving skills to substitute and piece together and adapt materials and still create beauty.

They still had choices aplenty but different kinds of choice. They made do, out of both necessity and temperament.

But I’m no purist on this subject. In an age where we have so much available to us, the choice between making do and buying new doesn’t have to be absolute.

Sometimes, buying new makes total sense. If, as makers, we are motivated to make purely for expressive and creative reasons, then buying the exact right materials is probably necessary.

When I made the “Cot to Coffin” quilt recently for a War of 1812 bicentennial, the constraints were so specific that it made sense to buy new.

In so many cases, though, for those of us who look to build on a tradition and to get in touch with history and rely less on store bought, why not re-evaluate our impulse to go shopping?

So, for my next quilting project? How about if, instead of starting a new top with new materials, I finish one of the dozen vintage quilt tops I have in the cupboard? Or use up some of the myriad of leftovers pieces of fabric from the quilt I finished last year?

How about I weave with what we have on hand, and just think harder during the planning stage?

What if I “shopped” my pantry before deciding what to bake?

I’m saying all of this out loud not to judge or promise or set anything into stone. I’m only seeking to remind myself, imprint in my own thoughts, the value I see in making do so, when I’m tempted to buy a lot of stuff, I might think twice.

Because making do might mean settling for more.

The Death of Sunbonnet Sue: It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Girl

Sunbonnet Sue, Strangled by a SunflowerIt was a dark and stormy night. A young woman, wearing a sunbonnet and an apron and known as a pillar of the community, was found dead in highly suspicious circumstances. When contacted, a neighbor said, “I didn’t really know her—she was quiet. But she seemed like such a good girl—who would want her dead?”

Sunbonnet Sue was dead. And I, for one, was glad.


I spend a lot of time writing, in hushed and reverent tones, about crafts made by “loving hands at home.” I realize that this adds to a pervasive stereotype of makers—quilters, knitters, gardeners, bakers—as old-fashioned, traditional, proper, boring good girls.

It’s easy to lose track of the real, complicated human beings who choose to express themselves by making things, people who are creative, who have strong personalities and opinions, and who are funny!

The life cycle of the quilt and embroidery pattern known as Sunbonnet Sue serves as a perfect example of the ways people, real people, have used one icon to serve lots of different purposes and express a lot of different views of the world.

The original Sunbonnet Sue sort of stands for the stereotype of the prim, faceless crafter. In a previous post, I referred to her as ubiquitous and, in the United States, in the early- and mid-20th century, she really was!

trad sueImages of Sunbonnet Sue originated in book illustrations from the late 1800s.

book sueBetween 1900 and the 1930s, Sunbonnet Sue started showing up in embroidery and quilt patterns that were widely disseminated in the US, according to Carla Tilghman in her very interesting academic paper about the evolution of Sunbonnet Sue (I found the paper at www.academia.edu/5767883/The_Life_Death_and_Resurrection_of_Sun_Bonnet_Sue but am unable to create a link that will take you there–sorry!) At one point, patterns for making a Sue quilt appeared in 900 newspapers!

Sunbonnet Sue clearly struck a chord with many women, offering a sweet and innocent image of childhood.

But Sue was always such a Goody Two-Shoes! The quilt and embroidery images of her showed her in namby-pamby good-girl activities, watering flowers, playing with her dolly, just standing around looking cute.

According to Tilghman, in the heat of the feminist movement of the 1970s, some quilters, feminists all, decided that prissy Sue needed to die. From their collaboration, came the quilt, “The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue.” The quilt was composed of twenty panels, each quilter killing Sue off in a different way.

And they didn’t allow Sue to die a peaceful death either . . .

Some of Sue’s deaths were just regular misfortune—she was hit by lightning.

Sunbonnet Sue, Struck by LightningShe was tied to railroad tracks.

Sunbonnet Sue, Tied to the TracksShe was eaten by a snake. (I LOVE this one!)

Sunbonnet Sue, Eaten by a Snake It could happen to any of us, right?

But this Sunbonnet Sue was also a citizen of a complicated world, dying some pretty modern deaths. Sue died at Jonestown, Guyana—yes, she drank the KoolAid.

Sunbonnet Sue, GuyanaSue died at Three Mile Island.

Sunbonnet Sue, Three Mile IslandShe self-immolated.

Sunbonnet Sue, Self Immolation

She ran afoul of the mob.

Sunbonnet SueShe committed Sue-icide.

Sunbonnet Sue, Sunbonnet Sue-icideI have to admit, seeing this quilt for the first time made me downright gleeful. I love the subversive attitude and the wit. Lots of people found it distasteful, though—I read quilting forums where people railed against these makers, and prayed for the souls of the poor dead Sues.

I do believe this is the sort of thing about which reasonable people may disagree. Give me funny, irreverent crafters any day!

Sunbonnet Sue has continued to evolve. I’m sure there are people out there making traditional Sues to give to cherished grandchildren but others still choose to kill Sue off in gruesome ways and also to reinvent her as a 21st-century kind of gal!

If you go looking, you’ll find lots of images of “bad Sue” patterns these days. Bad Sue lives as she wishes. The website for Urban Threads, for instance, offers lots of patterns for thoroughly modern “Sinbonnet” Sues—goodbye to innocence! Goodbye to prim! These girls embrace the 7 Deadly Sins, as well as roller derby and tattoos.


The Deadly Sin of Sloth

sinbonnet toughIn today’s world, there are Sues for every taste, as many Sues as there are makers. If you are a modern maker, you didn’t need me to tell you that you are complicated and multi-faceted. You didn’t need me to tell you that you are naughty and nice, and that you have a sense of humor and awareness of the world around you.

If you were going to make a Sunbonnet Sue that represented you, what would she be doing? If you remember my most recent post, mine might be pulling weeds with one hand and wielding a cocktail in the other! Or crafting with attitude!

sinbonnet sue crafty