Vintage Style of Embroidering with Red Thread is Popular Again
Redwork embroidery first became popular in the 1880s. It’s popular again today for quilts and home decor accessories, and can now be stitched by machine and by hand.
Redwork embroidery got its name from Turkey red cotton embroidery thread, a machine-made thread that became popular in the late 19th century because it was inexpensive and colorfast. Most other threads of the day suffered from color bleeding.
The typical redwork pattern consisted of an outline drawing that was stamped or printed on white muslin fabric and stitched over with red embroidery floss, using a basic stem stitch. See the photos at the bottom of the page for some samples of redwork embroidery.
Practical, Inexpensive, and Easy, Redwork Caught on with Victorian Women
The washability of redwork embroidery, the development of iron-on transfers in the 1870s, which made transferring patterns onto fabric easier, and the simplicity of the embroidery stitches used for redwork all made it quite popular in the Victorian era.
Interest in redwork grew through the end of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century. Redwork embroidery patterns were used as giveaways to promote magazine subscriptions and included magazine pullouts. Catalog companies offered do-it-yourself pattern stamping kits. Redwork was even promoted as a home business for women, who could use stamping kits to sell redwork patterns to friends and family.
In the Victorian era, embroidery was considered an important part of a girl’s education. Poor girls could use their needle skills to find paying work, and richer girls used fine hand embroidery to decorate their trousseaus. The outline stitches used for redwork were easy enough for a young girl to learn.
Redwork Moves from Home Décor to Quilts
The earliest redwork embroidery-stitched mainly decorate home décor items like kitchen towels, antimacassars, dresser scarves, pillows, laundry bags, and other home items. Later on, the wide availability of small, inexpensive redwork patterns called “penny squares” sold at dry goods stores made redwork popular for bedspreads and quilts. The blocks were embroidered first, then assembled into a quilt either with or without sashing.
Machine-Made Goods Dethrone Redwork Hand Embroidery
Like so many forms of hand embellishment, redwork went into a decline after the First World War The new availability of machine-sewn clothes and bedding made all types of hand embroidery less popular with ordinary women. Redwork also lost some of its cachet as colorfast threads became available in other colors. Bluework, a type of embroidery identical to redwork except that it was stitched in blue thread, enjoyed a vogue in the early years of the 20th century.
Modern-Day Redwork Recreates Vintage Styles
Renewed interest in all types of handcrafts began around the time of the American bicentennial in 1976. Redwork is one of the many forms of embroidery that saw a revival in popularity. Quilters were the primary drivers of the redwork resurgence. Antique redwork quilts became popular collectibles, and quilters inspired by the old styles used redwork to give their work an old-fashioned look.
Today, redwork patterns are available for machines as well as hand sewing. Days of the week, holidays, nursery rhymes, Sunbonnet Sue, quotes and bible sayings, and cute animals and children are all popular themes. While white muslin or linen remains the most popular ground fabric, quilters also tea-dye or coffee-dye the background fabric to make it look older.