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.

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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.

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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.

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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