What the F*** is “Redwork”?

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History Lesson

What is Redwork?

“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.

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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.” (Excerpt from “Redwork Embroidery Primer” by Rissa Peace Root)

What you need

Ten dollars buy you everything you need for weeks worth of embroidery.

  • embroidery needle. ($1)*
  • embroidery hoop ($1)*
  • DMC floss (use two strands) ($.39 a skein)
  • Linen or muslin fabric in white or ecru ($3-5/yd.)
  • iron on pattern ($1-4)
  • a fine point red permanent micron pen if you want to skip the pattern and draw your own. ($1.50)*
  • Note: *= one time cost


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If you would like to learn more about Redwork and do a cute little project then sign-up for the class next Wednesday night!

Redwork Class

Date: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 6:30 p.m.

Cost: $15

Session 1:  Redwork Lavender Owl Sachets

You will receive your own kit which will include:
-(2) embroidery needles
-(1) skein of red floss,
-(1) muslin square with a pattern on it
-(1) embroidery hoop
-Organic lavender
-A history lesson on Redwork

Click here to RSVP
-or buy now- (Class limit is 10)

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