History of Redwork Embroidery

Redwork embroidery has a rich history dating back to the late nineteenth century. It is a simple style of “art needlework” that consists of embroidering the outline of designs onto a white or off-white background with a contrasting color of thread. Today, this stitch is commonly called backstitching or outline stitching.

When the style first became popular, red thread was the easiest color to obtain. It was also colorfast, meaning it will not wash out or “bleed” onto the white fabric. Turkey Red is the name of a natural dye that became popular in the mid-nineteenth century in North America. Other dyes became available about 1875 and provided a broader range of colors, however, they would fade. The Turkey Red thread was more expensive but it was worth it, because of its colorfastness. From 1910 to 1930, a colorfast blue thread was popular. Today, we continue to use red thread with this style of embroidery, because the red color contrasts well against a light background.

The popularity of redwork increased around 1900. Napkins, tea towels, dresser scarves, chair cushions, sofa pillows and chair back covers were all typical projects women would make for the home. In her book, “Red and White: American Redwork Quilts” redwork enthusiast Deborah Harding writes, “Given this mandate to decorate everything in sight with embroidery, women took to their task seriously.”

Most patterns were very simple to stitch. Animals, flowers, toys, and children were all popular themes. Pictures of famous buildings and people, as well as playful storybook and nursery rhyme characters, were also stitched. Magazine publishers gave away patterns to promote subscriptions. As supplies became more readily available, sometimes they would offer kits. Resourceful women used pictures in children’s coloring books and other advertisements as patterns.

Stamping fabrics - transferring the design onto the fabric - became a source of income for many women. Some manufacturers hired professional stampers, and some women did this side work from home. Around the 1870s, iron-on transfers were developed. Using a warm iron was an easier method to apply the design onto the fabric.

Preprinted squares that were ready to embroider were sold. They originally cost about a penny apiece, so they were commonly called “penny squares”. These squares were embroidered and stitched together into bedcoverings or quilts. Also, children were given penny squares to learn and practice hand embroidery.

Redwork continues to be popular today. Many continue the traditional method of creating projects with hand embroidery, either in red thread or using different colors. Machine embroidery companies began offering the redwork look in designs for the embroidery machine. A run stitch, which is a single row of stitching similar to a straight stitch on a sewing machine, can be used to outline a design or to move from one area to another to avoid a jump stitch. Run stitches can be single, double, or triple run, depending on how many times the stitch passes over itself. Run stitches are commonly used to outline a design or to create an outline-only design, such as redwork.

Redwork or linework embroidery designs can be stitched in red thread or a different color, but are commonly one-color designs. Here are a few examples of those types of embroidery collections. On our website, you can find them under the Technique heading and then choose Linework & Redwork.

Bunnies and Bears by Indygo Junction #80053
Doodle Holiday #12415
Christmas Redwork 3 #12259
Kitchen Redwork #12251
Redwork 2 #12441

There are some designs that have that same look but use different colors of thread, instead of just one. These machine embroidery designs allow for color stops to change the thread color. You can stitch them out in one color if desired.

Winter Cheer #12363
Signs of Spring #12339
Holly Jolly Redwork #12304
Grandmother’s Linens 2 #12088
Grandmother’s Linens 1 #12021

These are charming designs so what can we make with them? Redwork designs are best on a no-nap fabric like cotton or batiste. A lightweight fabric works fine because the designs don’t have many stitches. Kitchen towels, aprons, potholders, table runners, quilts, and clothing are a few projects to create using the redwork designs.

Another project idea is greeting cards using cardstock. The run stitch is great for stitching on paper. Satin stitches perforate the paper too much and cause the thread to leave large holes in the paper. The trick to embroidering on paper is to use a small needle-like 70/10 Organ embroidery sharps, and use a sticky-backed cutaway stabilizer. It holds the cardstock in place without it moving. Replace the needles frequently as they will dull more often.

One of our most popular redwork collections is Winter Redwork #12542 - features lots of snowmen and classic Sue.

Redwork is still popular, whether stitched by hand or on an embroidery machine. If you haven’t done so, we encourage you to give redwork a try.

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