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Antique redwork coverlets are a much sought-after item these days, and home furnishings catalogs are beginning to feature reproductions. “Redwork” refers to simple designs that are embroidered in red thread on a white background. The designs were outlined flowers, figures, nursery rhyme characters, animals, even historical scenes.

Redwork became popular in the late 1870s. The craft took its name from an embroidery thread known as Turkey Red. This name denoted not just a color, but a dye process that had originated in Turkey centuries earlier. It was a lengthy, complicated process, but the result was a dye that was colorfast. This dye process was introduced to Europe in the mid 1800s. Colored silk threads were already available to Victorian ladies for their fancy embroidery, but they were quite expensive. Turkey red was, on the other hand, cheap, colorfast and readily available. It became the favored embroidery thread to use on “Penny Squares” – small muslin squares that had a simple pattern printed on them that were purchased for one cent. As redwork caught on, ladies’ magazines began publishing patterns, some of them quite intricate, for the embroidered squares. After 1930, synthetic dyes were manufactured in the United States and a wide range of colorfast threads became available. Embroidered quilts after this time feature multi-colored patterns.

Redwork coverlets have been called the ‘forgotten quilts’ of the 1900s by antique dealers. Finding a completed quilt in an antique store today is unusual; there are few left on the market and they command high prices.

The craft of redwork, however, is enjoying a revival. Quilt shops, fabric stores, and crafts stores are offering books of simple patterns that can be traced onto muslin fabric. Many of these pattern collections have been reproduced from old quilts of the redwork era. Anyone who can do a simple sketch can make their own redwork patterns, and coloring books are also a good source of patterns.

Stitching the blocks is quite easy. The basic outline stitch (also called the Kensington stitch in England) is most often used. It is quite simple to learn, making redwork a good project for children. Today, crafters use standard six-strand embroidery floss in any shade of dark red that appeals to them. The floss is cut into 18-inch lengths and separated, so the pattern is embroidered with just two strands. Best results are achieved using all cotton fabric such as muslin, and stretching it taut with an embroidery hoop while working on it. Embroidery needles have larger eyes than standard needles, making them easier to thread with the floss.

Redwork blocks can be anywhere from six inches to twelve inches square. Pre-shrink the fabric by washing and drying it, and cut all the blocks the same size. To trace designs, tape the pattern to a window, center the muslin over it, and trace with a light pencil line. Quilter’s pencils, available at craft stores, wash out easily.

Traditionally, redwork blocks are assembled without sashing strips between them. Sew the blocks together in rows, then join the rows to make a coverlet. Many of the older quilts were then embellished with a decorative stitch known as the feather stitch, which was worked over the seam lines of the blocks. They were commonly joined to a backing fabric with no batting in between, and used as summer coverlets. Rather than being quilted to join the layers, they were tied, or tufted, at the corners of the blocks.