A Brief History of Redwork

Redwork is a nearly forgotten needlecraft art that, with other traditional handicrafts, is enjoying a revival of interest. It was first made popular in the late 1870’s and was a ground breaking embroidery style that changed the needlework world forever.

For years, embroidery was considered a craft of the rich. Silk floss was the only thread available, and it was costly. Only the most well-to-do could afford to purchase silk threads to embroider their elaborate gowns and home décor.

Cotton embroidery floss had been around for years but only in the color white. Dyed cotton floss couldn’t be used because it bled onto its backing at the first drop of moisture. Then, in Turkey, a process was invented whereby cotton floss could be dyed to a colorfast shade of red. The recipe was complex and kept under lock and key, but the results were amazing. Common people could now embroider everything from linens and towels to clothing with red floss that could withstand frequent washing and line drying without shedding a single drop of color.

This inexpensive colorfast floss was the impetus for other new products to hit the market. Soon every fabric shop and general store was selling six inch muslin squares, marked with simple embroidery designs. These patterns, known as Penny Squares, were fast and easy to embroider, and incorporated into light bedcovers, pillow cases and other household linens.

Penny Squares and red cotton floss were used to teach young women to sew and embroider. This skill was deemed so important that organizations from orphanages to private schools required their students to learn stitchery.

The contrast of red floss against white or cream colored fabric created a stunning and attractive finished product. Soon other colorfast dyes were created, and embroidery enthusiasts could now use blue, purple or green threads on their project, but though the coloring was different, the technique was still referred to as redwork.

Redwork, quilting and other handicrafts fell out of popularity in the mid 1900’s but in the last fifty years they’ve made a comeback. Needlework artisans, impressed with the simple charm of antique redwork quilts and linen’s, have brought new life to the craft. Some embroidery enthusiasts even dye their linen fabric with tea or coffee to recreate the appealingly aged look of the original pieces.

Today you can find groups across the country that support redwork, appreciate the vintage designs and share their passion for the art with like-minded sewists.

If you’re interested at trying out this classic embroidery form, there are many patterns available. Use them as blocks for wall hanging quilts, or choose a domestic pattern to decorate a set of muslin tea towels for your kitchen. This easy and fun needlework style is also a great beginner project for kids that are interested in learning to embroider.

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