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History of Redwork posted: 8/10/2003
by Rachel Greco Printable Page
Category: History Method: All
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Redwork Embroidery was very popular from about 1880-1920. Patterns were stitched in red (sometimes blue) on a muslin background. This type of stitching, popularized by the Kensington School for Girls in England during the 1880s, was called the Kensington stitch but we know it today as backstitching or outline stitching. The reason Red was chosen is because it was a sturdy cotton thread that could be counted on not to fade or bleed. This time period was also before DMC floss was available in the United States and other color choices were available only in silks.

Sears & Roebuck and other catalogues of the time period offered "penny squares"--small sheets of muslin with stamped patterns for one penny each. Older women have told us that they can remember going to the local dry goods store as a little girl and picking out a pattern to have stamped for embroidery. They would stitch this design during their free time each week. Many looked forward to the Saturday trips to town to pick out their next design.

Themes on penny squares included historical figures, animals, flowers, household items, fruit and vegetables, children and nursery rhymes. Pictures had different meanings. For instance, horse shoes were a sign of good luck, angels ensured the safekeeping of children, and each flower had a secret meaning. Children were often given penny squares to work on, especially when convalescing from an illness. My own grandmother, recalling how she learned "fancy work," decided that I should learn to stitch using penny squares when I was nine years old. (In Redwork's heydey, nine would have been considered quite "old" for learning how to stitch!) Table and luncheon cloths, dishtowels, quilt blocks, pillow shams, pillowcases, tea towels and splashers (used behind a wash bowl) all featured redwork.

Frequently Asked Questions about Redwork:

What color floss should I use for Redwork?
The color of floss that is closest to the color available during Redwork's heyday (1875-1930) is DMC #498. This color is a nice turkey red. Other colors appropriate for redwork (or bluework) include: DMC Color 321 (medium red); DMC Color 304 (cherry red); DMC Color 797 (darker blue) and DMC Color 813 (light blue).
What is the best way to transfer Redwork patterns to cloth?
Use only the finest 100% cotton muslin or cotton toweling. Place your design on a light box, then place the muslin square on top of the design. Trace your design using a mechanical pencil, blue water erase pen or red pigma pen.

About the Picture Shown Above:
The quilt was made in approximately 1910 by 10 year old Helen Wells and I acquired it in 1997. The blocks are all from English Nursery Rhymes and done in the traditional redwork thread of the time period. (Predates DMC floss that we often use today). It is part of our Redwork Block of the Month Clubs. We call it Nursery Rhymes Block of the Month and it is currently available at our website.

2003 Rachel Greco

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