Embroidery has long been a popular form of needlework. By the second half of the nineteenth century, ladies were expected to have some needlework skills beyond simply making clothing and household items; they were encouraged by the magazines of the time to develop their skills to beautify themselves and their surroundings. Embroidery was used to decorate nearly every type of textile, and because Turkey red was one of the very few colors that was unfading and didn’t run, it was chosen as the preferred color, so what we now call Redwork became very popular.
Detail from a redwork decorated towel, c.1920’s
Two shams and a dresser scarf in redwork.
And below, a pillow cover in a cousin: “bluework”.
Redwork is generally defined as embroidery with a red thread on a white ground – usually linear stitches creating a pictorial motif. It was commonly used to decorate towels, splashers (hung behind the sink to absorb wayward drops of water), dresser scarves, shams and more. After crazy quilting took hold in the 1880’s, the idea of using embroidery to embellish a quilt was in vogue, so it wasn’t long before redwork embroidery made its way to use in quilts.
Beginning late in the 19th century, and continuing on into the mid-20th century, many quilts were decorated in redwork, with the height of their popularity probably in the 1920’s. Pre-printed muslin squares (called penny squares because of the popular price) with embroidery patterns, stencils and transfers were widely available, and young children often learned early to embroider simple designs. Many quilts were made using squares with these printed designs, some quite simple, some much more elaborate.
Some quilts used combinations of several patterns within some blocks; the one shown below also added a redwork decorated border and red lines between blocks.
Click on any quilt images to see details from the quilts.
But not all redwork quilts were made from commercially designed patterns. Many creative needleworkers designed their own motifs and themes. Two weeks ago we saw a dealer in Lancaster County who had a redwork quilt packed full of images of fruits and flowers, as many as a hundred or more. Over the years we’ve had a number of redwork quilts – while the two shown above are more or less the standard type, we’ve had others that were very different, like this one dated 1904.
I’m sorry I don’t have a better quality overall picture, but if you click on it you can go to a page of detailed pictures from the quilt.
Another redwork quilt I sold early this year was a true original, with some historical significance. The theme was the Lindbergh kidnapping, and it featured images adapted from published pictures in the news media of the time. It was made by a woman in Hunterdon County, NJ, where the trial was held.
Again, if you click on the image, you’ll be taken to a page that shows all of the individual blocks.
You can see that the possibilities are literally endless. We’ve had redwork quilts that were labeled as a child’s first effort, others that were remarkably skillful. Given the skill of some needleworkers, the only bounds are those of the imagination – and today with sophisticated computerized sewing machines that can be programmed to do the embroidery, as well as widespread availability of patterns, redwork is still a popular form.