A Redwork Embroidery Primer

Rissa Peace Root © 2003, 2004 all rights reserved.

Background Information

The name Redwork is derived from the red cotton thread that was used to create this charming style of embroidery. The cotton processors in Turkey used a special dye process that made it colorfast, which was a novelty at the time and explains much of its popularity. Since the red color process came from Turkey, Redwork was also called Turkey Redwork, which is not be confused with Turkeywork. [1] Until the introduction of colorfast cotton, only silk was used in traditional colored thread embroidery. Colorfastness was critically important, because threads used to embroider linens needed to endure the rigors of washing and line drying. Until this point, only white and natural cotton were acceptable and affordable for such mundane work. The introduction of Turkey red marked the beginning of an era in which colorful decorative items were no longer restricted to clergy and the wealthy. Suddenly a whole new, colorful world of embellishment was open to the average person.

Redwork is believed to have originated in Europe in the 19th century and traveled to America prior to the War Between the States. Silk may have been a luxury item, but cotton was plentiful and with the failure of the Southern agricultural economy in the reconstruction period, it was certainly cheap. Redwork was extremely popular among people who were not a part of the fussy Victorian culture of "collect and embellish." Redwork found a niche among peasants, immigrants and the middle class, especially in America. Much of its popularity was due to its economy, sublime simplicity and widespread availability. In America, dry goods stores sold 6 inch muslin squares marked with a variety of designs for a penny each. These "penny squares" are often seen incorporated into old Redwork bedspreads and linens. Not only were the materials relatively inexpensive, but the basic outline stitches meant less thread was required than in Blackwork or Whitework and they were easy to master. Penny squares were often given to youngsters to occupy their time, as well as improve their embroidery skills. Puritans were loathe to waste time, after all, "idle hands are the devil's workshop." However, hand work was more than just busy work in this bygone era. Even children in orphanages were taught to sew and embroider, because it would be invaluable to them in finding employment as a maid. It was an essential part of raising all young women, they might very well be expected to furnish their own linens as part of a trousseau. In fact, it was girls from the Kensington School in England helped popularize Redwork. The school's name continues to be intimately associated with this style of embroidery, as is evidenced by the fact that the split stitch is also called the Kensington Stitch.

Most sources agree that penny squares were widely distributed in the early 1900s through the beginning of World War II, although their popularity had begun to decline even before that time. The simple designs were also made available in catalogs, newspapers and magazines. It would seem the interest in the designs outlasted the interest in penny squares. In fact, line drawing designs for Redwork were printed in publications like Work Basket throughout its publication and even in more modern magazines like McCall's Needle Crafts. At various times it has been fashionable to work these same designs in other colors, for example indigo blue. However, Bluework is really best described as Blue Redwork, since the stitch and design elements are identical. As more colorfast cotton colors became available on the open market and as better threads were made available to a wider audience, stitchers moved on to more sophisticated styles of embroidery and Redwork languished. Actually, all embroidery languished, due to changing times and temperaments, until the resurgence of needlepoint and crewel work in the mid 1900s and the birth of modern cross stitch in the last few decades. However, no one style of embroidery has ever had as much of universal grass roots appeal as Redwork.

Redwork has recently experienced a renaissance in part due to interest by quilters who have sought to recreate some of the antique quilts seen at auction. Since surviving penny squares were often incorporated into old quilts or shams, it makes perfect sense that the quilting community would be responsible for some of the resurgence of Redwork's popularity. While these humble quilts did not generate the same interest as Victorian Crazy Quilts among antique dealers, they certainly struck a chord with the quilting public. There are many sophisticated designs currently available, including Antebellum hoop skirted women, which fit well with the time period of this style. Yet many people are drawn to the very traditional design work that harkens back to a simpler time, when mules were as important to the family as the modern day car. Although the variety of thread colors and types is astonishing, people like the look of traditional red and white or blue and white designs. Primitive lettering and simple hand drawn designs remain popular, because many needleworkers want the finished piece to look authentic. It is also interesting to note that a lot of embroiderers and quilters use tea or coffee to stain the fabric to achieve an antique or distressed look.

Stitches Used

Any plain outline stitch is acceptable for Redwork. Backstitch, outline stitch (also known as the thread up stem stitch), stem stitch (also known as the South Kensington stitch) or the English Kensington stitch (also known as the split stitch) were all used in this type of embroidery. Thanks to Dee Stark for driving it home with me that the outline stitch was NOT the same as the backstitch. Backstitch is a type of outline stitch, but not THE outline stitch which is very close to a stem stitch, except that the thread is always held up, which explains its alternate name. Some things, especially what is generally considered naive stitching, I just assumed I knew without looking it up in the stitch dictionary. Apparently, it is a common mistake, because the only thing I had with me at the time that Dee wrote me, was Design Originals Merry Redwork book and their "Outline Stitch" is definitely a back stitch and not a thread up stem stitch! As soon as I had access to my stitch encyclopedias again, I looked up the outline stitch in ALL of them, just as I had the rest of the stitches listed. I have seen dozens and dozens of Redwork items, mostly shams and partially stitched penny squares, up close and personal. I have always seen them in backstitch and split stitch (which does looks like stem stitch), so forgive my huge faux pas.

Thread

Any thread, in any color can be used. However, six strand cotton embroidery floss are the most common choices for modern stitchers. See chart below for the most common DMC and Anchor floss colors used in Redwork. Indigo blue cotton was also introduced about this time and some Redwork is actually done in blue.

DMC Anchor
498 1005
817 13
321 47
304 1006

Use two strands of floss for the body of the work and one strand for any fine detail.

Just note here, most modern reds are prone to bleeding. A friend suggested that you should soak your skein in vinegar and water for twenty minutes in order to "set" the color, then roll it in a towel to wring out excess water and allow to air dry to prevent bleeding. Admittedly, my local heirloom sewing center only sells Anchor, believing their reds are less likely to bleed. Recently, I discussed this with the owner of my local needle shop and she said that DMC guarantees their floss to be colorfast and she was upset that I had had items bleed and wanted me to contact DMC or bring her the items and let her do it for me. Of course, she also gladly sold me six skeins of red Anchor, so that I could do a field test.  

The critical factor here seem to be to keep your thread dry while working, so never wet your floss before you thread it! 

Fabric

Traditionally, Redwork was worked on plain cotton muslin. Although there are many fabric choices available today, most people stick with traditional cottons or linen fabrics in white or ecru. Tea stained or coffee dyed the fabric is also popular.

Needle

Any fine needle with an eye big enough to accommodate the thread of your choice can be used, but I tend to prefer sharps.  I often use betweens in a size 10 or size 9 or an embroidery needle. This is not an exact science, experiment with a few needle choices to see which works best for the technique you prefer.

Hoop

A hoop is completely optional, but very helpful with this type of hand work.

Design Transfer Methods

Transferring a design is pretty much the same as with other types of embroidery and there are many options available.

There are a lot of iron-on transfers available for Redwork design. Just iron and stitch, making sure not to swirl the iron, lest you smear the pattern. I have never seen an iron-on book that did not have explicit instructions for hot transfer.

This particular method also lends itself to using digital images directly printed onto fabric using your home computer and an ink jet printer. The more finely detailed the image, the harder this will be to do.

Another option is to transfer the design from a photocopy by using a very hot iron or heat transfer tool. Make sure you do not swirl the iron over the design to avoid smudges and smearing. This method does NOT work with images from an inkjet printer.

My favorite method is still direct transfer. If you tape your pattern to light box, you can almost always see it clearly through muslin.  Simply trace the design directly onto the fabric, using a pencil, chalk, very fine permanent marker in your thread color, or water/air soluble pen. There is a lot of debate about water and air soluble pens, but they work quite well for anything that does not require a terribly precise point. Just be careful to avoid heat as it may render the ink permanent.

Another method I like to use requires that you trace the design onto a temporary stabilizer like Solvy® with a fine tip permanent marker, then temporarily baste or paste it to the fabric. Being careful to remove as much as possible prior to soaking the sewn design.

Regardless of the method employed, make sure the lines are accurate. If the design is somewhat primitive, this will not be as important.

Design Sources

Design sources are plentiful for Redwork. Due to its mass popularity, there are thousands and thousands of designs dating back to the 1800s. There is also a wide variety of modern designs for Redwork. However the simple line drawings are easy to create yourself or to acquire from coloring books, stained glass patterns or any number of sources.

Tip and Tricks:

  • Use a very fine permanent marker (such as a Micron Pigma Marker) in the same color as your thread to mark your fabric.  It should be fine enough that the stitches will cover it completely.
  • Wash muslin prior to stitching.
  • Check the colorfastness of any thread you use prior to stitching on light fabric.
  • If you are going to wash the finished item and are using red thread, it is probably a good idea to soak it in water or a vinegar bath first, to avoid any eventually color migration.
  • Use a needle-threader!  You are risking color migration if you moisten your red thread, then immediately stitch on light colored fabric.
  • Pick either the split stitch, backstitch or outline stitch and be consistent with each design element.
  • To maintain authenticity, pick one color of thread (either red, blue or whatever strikes your fancy) and use only that one color for the entire project.
  • Avoid designs with too much detail, as it may be lost when stitched all in one color.
  • Nursery rhymes, Sun Bonnet Sue, bible stories, days of the week, holiday designs all make excellent themes for Redwork.
  • If you are looking for authenticity, use subjects that were popular from 1880-1940.

On-line Resources:

Red work specific:

Design possibilities:

Print Resources:

Redwork specific:

  • Alderman, Betty.  Favorite Redwork Designs.  Paper Back.  96 pages. ISBN: 157432733X. 
  • Alderman, Betty.  Alphabet Sue.  Paper Back.  ISBN:  
  • Allen, Holy Witt.  Penny Squares Redwork: 250+ Iron-ons.  Design Originals.  Paperback.   31 Pages.  ISBN: 
  • Anderson, Alex.  Shadow Redwork with Alex Anderson: 24 Designs to Mix and Match.  C&T Publishing.  Soft cover.  48 pages.  ISBN 1-57120-156-4.
  • Barankowski, Willa.  Love to Quilt: Historical Penny Squares Embroidery Patterns.  American Quilters Society. Paperback. 56 Pages.  ISBN: 0891458794 
  • Buckingham, Michael.  Presidential Redwork: A Stitch in time.  American Quilter's Society. 
  • Causee, Linda.  Learn to do Redwork.  American School of Needlework Publishing.  Paperback.  ISBN:
  • Covey, Mary.  The Big Red Book.  Paperback.  47 Pages.  
  • Harding, Deborah.  Red & White: American Redwork Quilts & Patterns Vol. 1.  Rizzoli International Publications.  Hardcover. 144 Pages. ISBN: 157432733X
  • Harding, Deborah.  Red & White: American Redwork Quilts & Patterns Vol. 2.  Rizzoli International Publications. Soft cover. 64 Pages. ISBN: 0847822443
  • Haynes, Cheryl.  Red Revival: 84 Iron-ons.  Design Originals.  Paperback.  23 Pages.  ISBN: .
  • Martin, Nancy.  Kitties to Stitch and Quilt: 15 Redwork Designs. Martingale and Company. 49 pages. ISBN: .
  • Martin, Nancy.  Redwork and Beyond CD-ROM: 201 Redwork Designs.   Martingale & Co.
  • McNeil, Suzanne.  101 Redwork Designs: Red Embroidery Designs for Quilting.  Design Originals.  Paperback.  Pages.  ISBN: 
  • McNeil, Suzanne.  Merry Redwork: Nostalgic Iron-on Designs for the Holidays.  Design Originals.  Paperback.  31 Pages.  ISBN: 1-57421-762-3.
  • [The] Quilter Magazine. Nov 2002. Redwork:  Something Old is New Again
  • Ray, Marjorie.  Redwork Revival.  Indygo Junction. Paperback.  32 Pages. 
  • Sinema, Laurene.  Redwork Quilts and More.  Design Originals. Paperback.  ISBN: 157421739.
  • Sinema, Laurene.  Redwork in Blue.  Design Originals.  Paperback. 99 Pages. ISBN: 1574217496.
  • Wooter, Marge.  Old World Santas in Redwork.  Indygo Junction. Paperback.  32 Pages. 

  • Santa's Parade of Nursery Rhymes: A Historic Redwork Quilt from the Kansas City Star. Paperback.  20 pages.  ISBN: 0967951941.

  • Sun Bonnet Sue Prime: Redwork Embroidery from Vintage Artwork.  Leisure Arts.  Paperback.  Pages.  ISBN: 
  • Sampler & Antique Quarterly. Winter 2001.  Volume 25. A Redwork Sampler and Bird in a Flower Basket Pillowsham.
1 Mildred Ryan defines Turkeywork as a " style of embroidery tries to duplicate the textures and designs of Turkish rugs" in The Complete Encyclopedia of Stitchery.  The Book of Colonial Needlework has a wonderful section on Turkeywork, complete with photos.


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This site last edited: 01/01/13