Many needlework techniques originated with the elite, wealthy class. These women had the time and means to be able to afford the finest fabrics and silk threads. Then over time, the middle class were able to acquire the materials and skills allowing the technique to expand across classes and cultures. Redwork had its beginnings with the middle to lower class probably originating in Europe in the mid-19th century.
Redwork is named because of the colorfast and durable red dye used on cotton threads. This was extremely important because harsh washing techniques and lye soap made other colors bleed and fibers breakdown. The dye known as Turkey red, is believed to have been refined in the Middle East for Turkish carpets. The dye comes primarily from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). The roots are red and about the size of a finger. The British Red Coat soldier’s fabric was also dyed with this natural dye. The process for preparing this dye was a little more extensive than other natural dyes, which may have accounted for the higher cost. Despite the thread costing up to three times more than regular floss, stitchers were willing to pay the extra price.
The growth of the technique has been credited to the weaker economy, availability of basic materials, and the simplicity of the technique. The basic, sometimes primitive, Redwork designs required very little thread and common fabrics. Redwork was popular in America from about 1860 through 1930. The stitching was done on household linens and personal accessories. One interesting household object was called a splasher. This was a finished work that hung behind the wash basin to protect the wall paper from getting wet and molding. Patterns were available in Work Basket, McCall’s Needle Crafts, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and The Ladies Home Journal. Most of the designs and motifs were drawn by professional illustrators. Few artists are actually known, however Kate Greenaway was a popular designer of children and floral motifs, while Ruby McKim’s designs were popular for quilts.
Here is an example entitled Holy Bible Coverlet. The approximate date is 1892-1895, possibly made in Pennsylvania. It is in the Michigan State University Museum. This particular quilt combined Redwork with the Crazy quilt concept which was also a style popular at this same time. The stitcher used the herringbone stitch to break the squares up into "crazy pieces". Several of the quilt’s embroidered designs reflect the ingenuity of its maker who used images found in advertisements for products such as Cuticura Soap, Imperial Granum, and Cod Liver Oil and probably tracings of items such as a teaspoon, keys, or a Bible.
During this time period, women did not have a lot of ways to voice their concerns or political views. Born out of this desire, and a way to raise monies for causes, was the subscription quilt. People, businesses or organizations paid money to have their name stitched into a quilt used to raise money. These blocks usually contained a simple design and the name of the sponsor which was usually done in red. A good example was this quilt made by a Michigan community to show their support of their local Ku Klux Klan. Please note that Nordic Needle is not endorsing the Ku Klux Klan. This example is being shown to explain the subscription quilt and how needlework was used to document history. This quilt was made in 1926. Grace Rowe Way, at age sixteen, had been enlisted, much to her embarrassment but because she had fine handwriting and sewing skills, to stitch names onto the quilt. Way recalled that each person paid 10 cents to have their name stitched on a block and when the quilt was completed it was raffled off.
Around 1920, advances in the dying process made other colors of thread colorfast and stitchers began to branch out. Thread became more affordable and available which allowed patterns to become more elaborate. Simple was no longer in vogue. Today, Redwork is having a resurgence due in part to quilter’s who are using the motifs in blocks using either the traditional hand stitching method or the modern machine embroidery programs.
Redwork uses a few basic stitches. This is a great technique for teaching children basic embroidery skills.
The Running Stitch passes the needle over and under the material along the line, with even spacing between the stitches. This is not a solid line.
The Backstitch is a series of even stitches worked from right to left along the design line where the needle is brought up ahead of the last stitch and then put back down through the hole made by the previous stitch. This creates a solid line; the stitches do not go to the left or right of the line.
The Stem Stitch is worked from the left to the right. Work from left to right, taking regular small stitches along the line of the design. Keep your thread below (or to the left) of your needle.
The Outline Stitch is worked along the line going from left to right like the Stem Stitch except that you keep your thread above (or to the right) of your needle. Strive to keep your stitches an even length.
The Kensington Stitch forever ties the Kensington School in England to Redwork. The South Kensington Royal School of Art Needlework had an exhibit at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition featuring Redwork outlined in this stitch. This stitch is great for outlining as it follows curves well. Also, it was used for solid embroidery because it gives subtle shading and a brush-stroke look to the embroidery. This stitch is worked like the back stitch except that you come up in the middle of the previous stitch, splitting it and then going down a short distance away from where the previous stitch ended. In some ways, it will resemble a chain stitch when finished.
French knots are used to eyes, dots, and other small details.
Visit the Stitch with the Embroiderers’ Guild website for more information and drawings of these stitches.
Excellent stitching resources are the A-Z books. They have two dedicated to embroidery.
Here are some additional resources with patterns and stitching instructions.
Six strand embroidery floss is the most common choice. For the majority of the stitches, 2 strands are used. One strand is used for the fine detail and on occasion 3-4 strands are used for heavy lines or emphasis. The DMC colors that most closely imitate the Turkey Red are DMC 304, 321, 498, and 817. It is interesting to note that today’s reds do have a tendency to bleed a little. One tip to keep that from happening is to always use a needle threader and not wet your thread to get it through the eye of the needle. One of our most popular threaders is the black oval with wire.
Clover has an extremely durable needle threader , even with thick threads. The threader is a flat wire that is part of the inner body making it much harder to break or pull apart.
The needle you use is going to depend on the fibers you are using and the stitches you are doing. Since you are working on a fabric such as muslin, you need a needle with a sharp point and you want an eye that is big enough so your thread will comfortably go through.
Here are the most popular choices:
Sharps are a great choice for embroidery because their round eye helps prevent wear on the fibers. The sharp point helps pierce the fabric and make a smooth stitch.
- John James has a set of embroidery needles (Sharps) in the cute Pebbles container.
- Piecemaker’s sells an assortment.
If you are stitching with really heavy or thick fibers, you may prefer a Chenille needle. It is shaped like a tapestry needle but has a sharp tip. John James has a Chenille Pebbles.
If you are doing a lot of French knots, you might prefer a Milliner’s needle. This needle’s eye is the same width as the shaft and makes it easier to slide the loops off.
You will want to use a hoop with Redwork or general embroidery. The key to uniform stitches is to keep your fabric snug so your stitching tension is even.
- Spring hoops keep the tension with the metal hoop that fits inside the plastic outer ring. This works well if you have a thinner fabric such as trigger cloth or muslin. Heavier fabrics like Aida may be too bulky and could pop out of the ring.
- Susan Bates has a nice set of hoops with super grip lips to get your fabric tight and keep from slipping.
- The ultimate in no-slip hoop is made by Morgan. These have a unique interlocking design that holds fabric firmly in place. Heavy plastic construction with a metal wing nut and bolt really keeps the tension where you want it.
We’ve come a long way in perfecting ways to transfer the patterns to fabric. In the past, the stitcher would go to their area dry-goods store and choose a design from the catalog. The clerk would pull out the template, a stiff paper that had the pattern drawn on it with little holes pricked along the lines. Chalk or an ink would be rubbed over the paper so the dots would appear on the fabric, usually muslin.
Today we have a number of options.
We can still do it the "old-fashioned way" with dressmaker’s carbon paper and a marking wheel. Don’t use typing carbon paper.
One of the earliest examples of pre-printed fabric was in the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. They offered pillowcases, laundry bags, and baby bibs. You can still get stamped pillowcases, samplers, and pictures.
Probably most of us are familiar with Aunt Martha’s Hot Iron Transfers. We carry an assortment of these popular patterns.
There are also many excellent selections in these books:
- 200+ Fun and Funky Embroidery Designs has a wide selection of iron-on transfers suitable for bags, clothes, linens, and so much more
Another method is Tracing using a light box where you copy the design onto the fabric. You’ll need a marking pen. We have a couple that disappear with water.
Often coloring books have clear patterns suitable for tracing.
Today we can enlist our computer graphics programs and printers to produce transfer patterns. You can purchase special printer paper that allows you to print the transfer and then iron it onto your fabric. One source said that you could iron a design that you had photocopied using regular copy paper. It said copies made on ink-jet printers would not work.
On the really high-tech end is machine embroidery where you use a special sewing machine and computer programs. Tell the machine what you want, get your fabric aligned correctly in the special frame, and the machine will do all the work for you.
Tips and Tricks
For Redwork you can use whatever finishing method you want that will work best with the stitch and the thread. Your concern is to use a knot that can be either worked in later or a knot that can be concealed under the stitching. For example, if you are working on a shear material, you wouldn’t want to have the knot visible under the fabric. A waste note will almost always work for any stitch. To use a waste knot tie a knot in the end of the thread. The knot needs to be large enough so it won’t pull through the fabric. Go out several inches from where you will begin your stitching. From the top of your fabric put your needle through the fabric. The knot will be on top of the fabric. As you stitch, you can try to stitch over the end of the thread. When you are through stitching, clip the knot. Rethread your needle and weave the end back through the completed stitching on the back of the fabric. A star de-tailor also works great to weave the ends back in.
Want to try your hand at Redwork? Click here for a cute site with a whimsical alphabet.
Pattern Bee also has several free Redwork patterns, including some reproduction pieces, such as "A Stitch in Time…" and "Good Night." Including this Redwork design called the Kiss.
What were penny squares? It was a neat marketing concept where the consumer got a square of muslin and a pattern which sold for a penny at the general store. The squares became a uniform size (6" square) around 1880. These blocks became popular to collect and finish in a quilt. We plugged in what the cost would be now if the cost was a penny in 1900….most of the inflation calculators put the price at 25 cents today.
Is Turkey Redwork and Turkeywork the same thing? Sometimes Redwork was known as Turkey Redwork due to the red thread. However, it is not the same as Turkeywork which is a form of knotted embroidery. This embroidery was popular in England in the 16th to mid-18th centuries. It is a specialty stitch that forms a loop that imitated Turkish carpets. Needlepoint stitchers can use this stitch for fur or for the centers of flowers.
If you want to be more involved in preserving techniques such as Redwork, you might be interested in the Embroiderers’ Guild of America (EGA) Their mission is to stimulate appreciation for and celebrate the heritage of embroidery by advancing the highest standards of excellence in its practice through education, exhibition, preservation, collection and research. Visit their website: http://www.egausa.org/index.html
For our European readers, The Embroiderers’ Guild is the UK’s leading crafts association and educational charity, offering a comprehensive program of contemporary exhibitions, workshops, City & Guilds courses, lectures and tours (UK & overseas) and much more. http://www.embroiderersguild.com/
The original members of the Embroiders’ Guild (UK) were graduates from the Royal School of Art Needlework (RSN). Their mission is to teach, practice and promote the art of hand embroidery to the highest standards, within both historical and contemporary design contexts. To learn more about the RSN visit their website: http://www.royal-needlework.co.uk/
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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