All of these are good questions, and I hope, in this article, to answer them all.
Redwork gets its name from the fact that it is traditionally stitched using red floss.
At the time when Redwork (also called Turkeywork, because the printed fabric came from Turkey) became popular, the manufacturing processes in Turkey were starting to use colourfast inks – at that time, in the 19th century – a novelty!
The reason for this is that the original “penny squares” were printed using heavy red colourfast ink on the fabric, and so you had to use a matching coloured thread to ensure that any areas where the ink outline was thicker than the stitched line didn’t show up as much.
The techniques used to manufacture the squares were revolutionary, because it now meant that, with colourfast dyes and inks, everyday embroidery on everyday items could now be made as colourful as those used for heirloom work.
It is believed that Redwork first became popular in Europe, and then travelled the world with immigrants.
In Europe, silk was used to stitch Redwork. In America, after the Civil War, with the southern economy in ruins, cotton, however, was cheap and plentiful. As a result, it gained popularity amongst the “lower echelon” of society who couldn’t afford the expensive silks.
In fact, the use of cotton to make floss was the next big revolution in Embroidery after the Elizabethan’s turning it into a hobby. Cheap, colourful cotton floss enabled the masses to start to embellish clothing and other linen.
Not only that, but the cotton was better able to stand up to the very rough washing techniques of the day.
Redwork pieces were sold as “penny squares” – this was a square of cotton muslin printed with the design (usually a “folk art” design) and each square was about 3 inches square.
They tended to use what they called Outline Stitch (which was actually stem stitch), back stitch, and split stitch on them, so the experience needed to stich one was at a fairly low level. Usually two strands of floss was used for the main design, with detail done using one strand.
Many girls were given Redwork squares to stitch as a way to keep them busy, as well as to teach them embroidery and sewing skills.
Later, these squares were often stitched together and used to make quilts.
Unfortunately, Redwork declined in popularity even before World War II had begun, losing it’s place to the more intricate traced linen. This was as a result of women having more time on their hands, as inventions such as the vacuum cleaner and washing machine made housework a lot easier than it was.
Redwork has once again become popular, and embroiderers and quilters around the world are once again turning to this striking technique for linen and quilts.
Favorite Redwork Designs by Betty Alderman
Shadow Redwork with Alex Anderson
Red & White: American Redwork Quilts & Patterns by Deborah Harding
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© 2007 Megan McConnell