|Redwork Embroidery: An Overview
Patricia L. Cummings
Redwork Embroidery has found appeal among embroiderers for three centuries! I began
embroidering Redwork designs when I was 5 years old. This is a brief overview of Redwork
(Outline Stitch Embroidery). Please keep in mind that Redwork is NOT Blackwork (which is a
counted thread technique only). Redwork was at first worked only with Red thread because that is
what was available. As time went on and other colors of embroidery floss were marketed,
embroiderers were able to select other colors. Red, blue, white, and green were the colors primarily
used in the 19th century for this technique. That changed somewhat in the 20th century as pastel
and variegated threads became available.
This antique Redwork quilt top in our collection features a wide variety of motifs!
Redwork Embroidery, once known as “etching on linen” by the English Victorians who practiced
it, earned its name because of the color of thread that was most often used to execute its stitches.
In an article that I wrote for The Quilter magazine, “Redwork: Something Old is New Again!” (NJ:
All-American Crafts Publishing, Inc., November 2002), I mention that Turkey Red, a color created
by using a colorfast dye derived from Madder plants, was first available in the 17th century.
According to the book The Red Dyes: Cochineal, Madder, and Murex Purple by Gösta Sandberg,
Turkey Red was previously known as “India Red” because the color is thought to have originated
in eastern India.
Fibers of Choice
Either perle coton (the original French spelling) or cotton embroidery floss are the fibers most commonly used to work
designs. Both types of threads were easily acquired in the late 19th century. As popularity of the technique increased,
two other colors of thread were chosen for the characteristic Outline Stitching. Embroidery work done in blue became
known as Bluework and that rendered in green was called Greenwork. Examples of antique Greenwork from the 19th
century seem to be more rare than either Redwork or Bluework. Over time, embroiderers expanded their color
palettes to include other colors for this type of embroidery including, but not limited to, pink, purple, yellow, and
Greenwork Tulip design from an antique coverlet
features many Colonial knots as accents
Types of Stitches
“Outline Stitch” is the primary type of stitch used to create “outline designs.” Redwork (used here as a generic term for all
outline-stitched motifs, whatever the color) varies from Crewel Embroidery which involves shading, and is done with wool
threads. Additional stitches seen on antique Redwork examples are Stem Stitch (a variation of Outline Stitch which depends
solely on which side of the needle the thread is carried), Back Stitch, and Colonial Knot stitches
Embroidery that looks a lot like Redwork, especially when it is worked in red thread, is actually created using a Tambour
hook, a totally different technique. An embroidered pouch in my collection has German writing on it and its embroidery is
executed in a continuous chain stitch, a tell-tale sign that it was most likely done in Tambour work. A photo of that piece can
be seen in my (out-of-print) book, Redwork Renaissance (Quilter’s Muse Publications, 2004) which was expanded and
transformed into an e-book called Redwork Renaissance Revisited (see our ordering page for details).
Flower motif stitched by Patricia Cummings made with
Presencia thread by Colonial Needle Co., NY
A Victorian Pastime
The Victorian Age began when Queen Victoria came to reign in 1837 in England and lasted until her death in 1901. Redwork
and Crazy Quilting, both popular in the later part of the 19th century, were two sides of the same coin. They represented a
rush to conform to the standards set in motion by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1860s led by English countrymen, William
Morris and John Ruskin. Their collective art, writings and ideas strongly influenced the Decorative Arts/Art Needlework
Movement in America. At the heart of their philosophy is the idea that women and men occupy separate spheres of influence.
According to their belief, a woman belongs in the home, creating serenity and grace by her presence, setting a good example
and engaging in benign needlework activities. As an aside, this kind of thinking happened to be the total opposite of women
such as Susan B. Anthony who fought for Suffrage and other social issues and for another 19th century woman, Clara
Barton, who put her own life on the line to tend to the wounded and dying on Civil War battlefields. In any age, there are
Example of a reproduction Redwork splasher
embroidered by Patricia Cummings
Designs Skip Over the Ocean
Kate Greenaway, a late 19th century British illustrator of books for children, is credited with generating a strong interest in
Redwork because her drawings were easily transformed into Redwork motifs. Endorsed by prominent magazines,
Greenaway's influence grew. Harper’s Bazar was one such endorser. (The magazine changed the spelling of the second word
to “Bazaar” at a later time). Though she never had children of her own, Greenaway was famous for her scenes of children
playing: skipping rope, blowing bubbles, flying kites or playing tug of war. Many of her designs show up on many extant
quilts and coverlets.
No Household Linen Exempt from Possible Decoration
The Outline Stitch first became very popular at the Royal School of Needlework in Kensington, England. Redwork came to
adorn a myriad selection of items for the home including tea towels, dresser scarves, laundry bags, lambrequins, doilies,
tablecloths, napkins, carving towels, chair “tidies,” German “over towels,” umbrella holders, and pillows, to name some
commonly decorated textiles.
Two Geniuses Represented by One Work
A Redwork design of the heads of angels is worked on a textile that we acquired in Maine. “Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest”
are the words that accompany the angels. They originate from Horatio's words, “Good-night, sweet prince/And flights of
angels sing thee to thy rest,” in Act V, scene 2, of Shakespeare's play, "MacBeth." The angel motif itself is a spin-off of a
famous painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), a British citizen. We speculate that the embroidered piece may have
been created to temporarily adorn a casket.
This 1787 design by Sir Joshua Reynolds
probably inspired this embroidery that was
re-created by Patricia Cummings, based
on a found item.
Reproduction of Redwork casket cloth embroidered by Patricia Cummings
In the days when it was common to wash up using a pitcher and basin, splashers prevented water from sloshing onto the wall
behind the washstand. It was important to keep walls dry so that they would not develop mold, especially at a time when spot
heating by fireplaces and wood stoves was the norm and central heating via a furnace was not common. Today, splashers are
fun to re-create as pieces of the past to keep this needlework tradition going.
Of course, splashers were sold commercially and were often made of heavier materials such as cotton duck, not meant to be
embroidered. A selection of ready-to-use splashers appear in a Sears and Roebuck catalog published in 1897. The price is $.10
cents or one could save $.02 cents by ordering three for $.28 cents. That seems like a bargain to us today!
Quilts v. Coverlets
We often find completed quilt tops with edges that are turned under. Even though raw seams were exposed on the back of the
work, these items were used as “summer coverlets.” Perhaps the embroiderer did not have the means to purchase a batting
and backing or did not want to spend the time assembling the layers and quilting them together. Nonetheless, we are always
happy to see these seeming unfinished pieces which are the delight of hand quilters today who want to take on the challenge
of finishing them into a proper quilt.
A Swedish teacher asked her students to embroider this design using
a Redwork pattern I formerly posted online. She sent examples her
students' work including this image..
Redwork: An Enjoyable Pastime
I can personally attest to the fact that Redwork is fun. My mother first introduced me to this technique when I was just five
years old. The stitches are easy to learn and the result is pleasing. As an alternative to the more time-consuming effort of
Crewel Embroidery, Redwork requires less expensive threads and can be done by anyone who has a piece of cloth, a needle
and some embroidery thread. Its easy portability is also a factor. Projects are easily transported to doctor appointments, a
backyard or to work on while a car passenger. This is one embroidery technique that is enjoying its 3rd century of popularity.
Clearly, the technique enjoys universal appeal.
Don't be fooled! The designs above are machine-stitched in
Black thread but that does not make them "Blackwork" which
consists of counted thread motifs stitched on an even-weave fabric
such as linen.
Patterns, Books and Instructions for Redwork, Bluework, and Yellow Work
Patricia Lynne Grace Cummings is the author of the books: Redwork Renaissance Revisited and Redwork Embroidery and
Needlework Traditions in Europe and America, as well as Antique Redwork Designs from New Hampshire (all are e-books
that can be accessed on ANY computer/ no special device needed). In addition, she makes available all of the Bluework
designs from an antique coverlet in her collection to purchase on CD. More recently, she added a"Yellow Work" pattern with
designs from a rare antique bed size quilt. Please check the "books and patterns for sale" page for further details, or send an
inquiry to email@example.com.
Copyright 2013-2015. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. All rights reserved.