What Is Redwork Embroidery?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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Redwork embroidery is a kind of classic embroidery in which red thread is used to create patterns on a white background. The unique aspect of redwork embroidery is that it was the first kind of color embroidery using cotton thread. The red dye that was originally used to color the thread was produced in Turkey and sometimes this type of embroidery is also called "Turkey redwork." This red cotton thread from Turkey was made in a way that kept the color in the thread so that it did not leach onto the surrounding fabric during normal washing and line-drying routines.

Before there was any kind of cotton thread dyed with colorfast hues, only wealthy people and members of the clergy had clothes and fabrics that were embroidered with colored thread. This is because before cotton was dyed in a colorfast way, silk thread was used for colored embroidery. When redwork embroidery was invented, it became possible for people of limited means to be able to embellish their fabrics with vibrantly colored embroidery.

It is believed that redwork embroidery originated in eastern Europe in the 19th Century. It quickly became used in other parts of Europe and also became popular in America. This type of embroidery was introduced to America before the Civil War.


In addition to being popular for its decorative purposes, redwork embroidery also became popular among the middle class and lower class because of its price. In the United States, for example, it was common for dry goods stores to sell what were called "penny squares." Penny squares were squares of white muslin that were usually about six inches (between 15 and 15.5 centimeters) long on each side. The squares were decorated with a variety of redwork embroidery patterns. These penny squares were purchased and used to incorporate into larger redwork projects such as bed spreads, quilts, and table cloths.

Another reason this type of embroidery was popular was that the embroidery required less thread to create a visible image than other kinds of thread. As such, it took less time to complete redwork patterns and it was also much less expensive to make the patterns as a smaller quantity of thread was required. As with all trends in textiles, favor for redwork embroidery has come and gone, but there are still people today who love the aesthetic of red embroidery on a white field. In fact, some people collect antique pieces of redwork.


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