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The History of Redwork

Mandy's Blog

The History of Redwork

Alison Owens

As many of you will know redwork is my favourite embroidery technique. Simple but extremely effective it can be mastered in minutes and used by both new comers and the more experienced stitcher. People often ask me about it’s heritage and I thought it would make a great blog so here it is.

It all started at the School of Art Needlework which was founded in 1872 by Victoria Welby with help and support from William Morris, his daughter May other friends in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

It became ‘Royal’ when Queen Victoria became its first patron in 1875 and in the same year there was a World Fair held in America to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the declaration of independence. The idea of the gathering was for countries from around the world to showcase their culture, new inventions and scientific advancements. These included a first appearance for Heinz Tomato Ketchup, the British Penny Farthing and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

The Royal School of Art Needlework was invited to showcase a type of simple hand surface embroidery sewn with backstitch which was known then as The Kensington Stitch – named after the Schools first home which was above a bonnet shop in Kensington, London. The American’s loved this new technique and started to embroider designs with simple outlines to decorate household wares.

By this time synthetic dyes were common and as a result embroidery threads were available in all colours of the rainbow. However, there was a perennial problem with red. No matter how they tried the synthetic dies threads would fade to a rose or brownish red and would bleed the lost colour into the fabric. Red was often avoided as a colour as a result.

So it was with much excitement that a new colour fast dye was introduced from Syria that produced a rich and incredibly colourfast red. The process of manufacture was long and complicated (even to this day red is an expensive dye to produce) but the result was a luxurious and durable red thread that did not run or fade. The middle eastern origin of the dye led it to be called ‘Turkish Red’ even though it came from Syria!

The sudden availability of red thread and the popularity of the new embroidery stitch introduced from London led to an explosion in popularity of simple outline designs on a white background and so the stitch and the style became known as Redwork.

Pre printed squares with all sorts of images including birds, flowers, nursery rhymes and even presidents, sold for pennies and the resulting embroideries were used to all kinds of home wares and often made into quilts. The vintage quilt used to illustrate this blog is just one such quilt.