Why it’s ok to like redwork embroidery

It’s true, Redwork looks a bit quaint. There’s no denying it. But there are reasons to write about it. First of all, redwork is a great way to start your journey into learning embroidery.

Redwork embroidery is easy, satisfying and it’s not just backstitching! Trust me though, as soon as you try get the details of your design right, you realise that it takes some time before you get, let’s say, the shape of an eye or the line of a finger. There’s some thinking to do. So if you’re starting out, don’t get upset if subtle detail is lost every now and then. It won’t take long for you to see improvements.

Questions you might want to ask yourself are: how many threads should you use based on the size of your design? Perhaps doing the outline of the main parts in standard 3 threads is a good idea, but when getting to the tiny details, perhaps, wouldn’t it work better to go with just 1 thread instead? How will you translate a curve with a straight stitch? Perhaps practising on a different piece of fabric might be a good way to see what happens.

How many outline stitches do you know? Have you thought about ways to use them? I love searching online and going to museums in search of embroidered hangings: if you take a look from close up you can play the game of guessing what stitches people used hundreds of years ago. It’s pretty satisfying.

But redwork isn’t really about filling your design in. It’s outline embroidery. The history behind it is fascinating too.

redwork lady embroidering

Traditional redwork designs can seem a bit quaint to most, including me, but it’s still part of a rich history involving the pleasure of embroidering.

Why is it called redwork you ask?

Well, this is what I know so far. Let’s travel back to the 1800s. In those days the only dye that was colourfast was red, hence the name redwork. Back then, they’d call  the floss itself: Turkish red. And that’s because the secret recipe to create such dye came from Turkey. As time passed, new colours developed including blue. At this point, they’d call it…can you guess? Bluework.

Many people now refer to redwork embroidery as the type of embroidery that is outline embroidery.

What was it used for and what can I use it for now?

At first it was used on different household items like towels, tablecloths and bedding. Then it became quite popular as a way to decorate squares for quilts. And that’s great, because the size of a quilt is daunting to most, imagine if you also wanted to go crazy with embroidery. I do. But I must say, if you just focus on making one square at a time, and if you think you probably don’t need to embroider each square, it becomes a lot more manageable, doesn’t it?

I’m gonna include a couple of photos of traditional quilts with redwork embroidery. I’ll tell you a secret: I’m not a big fan, as in: I wouldn’t do my quilt like that, but I do like the concept. It has so much potential, especially if you are thinking of a personal gift to a loved one ( or to yourself!).

photo of a redwork quilt

Traditional redwork quilt

If you do ever come across a true old redwork call yourself lucky. They are so rare! As this article by Suzy Williams points out.

This is mostly due to the fact that quilts made using redwork embroidery were made to be used.

Back in the day, people drew inspiration from children’s books, illustrations, magazines or simply bought pre-made patterns that would quicken the designing process.

Sunbonnet Sue made bonnets figures often synonymous of redwork embroidery designs. It’s pretty hard to search for redwork embroidery designs online without bumping into bonnets. I almost got to like them myself, but I’m not sure I’ll be making a bonnet quilt any time soon. What are your thoughts?


What’s Moody Bright’s Secret?

I do think there’s skills to be learnt from these designs.

The secret resides in the details that outline embroidery focuses on. Good outline stitching means entering the world of hand quilting, hand sewing, patchwork and appliqués. And for those who are passionate about textiles like I am, you surely agree with me that the creative possibilities within different textile practices and traditions are huge, enormous, limitless. So why choose and celebrate one tradition over another? Why not learn from as many as possible? Creativity can’t be judgemental, I think. And that’s why I’m writing about redwork today.

In my classes, I particularly like to teach outline embroidery using floral folk patterns, but it’s redwork embroidery that showed me how to improve my skills. Through experience, I also found there’s a certain pleasure in knowing that a design belongs to a tradition and the past. No matter how much I end up tweaking it at the end. Is it pure sentimentalism or nostalgia? I don’t know. If it is, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Would I like to go back to Victorian times when women were encouraged to embroider for reasons that I certainly disapprove of now? No, of course not. But should we forget the past? The past isn’t the present, it’s good to keep that in mind when scrutinising some of the designs.

To make it a bit more fair, I allowed myself to modify some of the designs that I found a little ‘too old-fashioned’ for my taste, like: why is the girl sweeping the floor and the boy outdoors with a kyte? Mmmhhhh, you see what I mean?

Original stylishly scrunched up design with a boy, his cute puppy and lovely kite….

Followed by: modified version. Now the girl gets a kite too, thank you very much.











Finally, redwork embroidery is a simple way to add personal decoration to your textile projects, may they be garments, wall hangings, covers, quilts, cards, you name it. It’s reasonably quick (compared to filling designs with embroidery) and its limits are known only by your imagination. So, why not give it a try?









Sunbonnet Sue: A Brief History

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