Redwork or embroidery on white muslin with red embroidery floss was very popular around the middle of the 19th century. Many pre-printed designs were available on white muslin ready to be purchased for one cent. Thus the name "penny squares" became popular. A skein of embroidery floss could also be purchased for one cent. Today we no longer use the name "penny squares" but we still use the term "redwork."
Early redwork patterns were published in the 1840's in "Godey's Lady's Book". Later on "The Ladies' Manual of Fancy Work" included many patterns for redwork items such as pin cushions, workbaskets, and bed quilts. Redwork was also seen on baby quilts, hand towels, and pillows.
In the mid to late 1800's many fundraising quilts were made using redwork techniques. Quilts with redwork signatures were embroidered and sold for church building projects or other worthy charities. A person could pay a certain amount of money -- as little as ten cents and have his or her name embroidered on the opportunity quilt. News events were also immortalized in redwork embroidery and buildings were commemorated.
By the early 20th century redwork had become quite popular and many patterns were available. Common designs were children's designs such as Mother Goose, baby animals and flowers. The "days of the week" patterns were very popular for dish towels and featured children and animals doing the daily work. Even Sunbonnet Sue appeared on many redwork designs.
A variation of redwork is bluework where a medium to dark blue floss was used to embroider traditional "bluework". In the past Dutch themed embroidery was also done with blue floss. Both bluework and redwork are still popular today.
Usually the color "Turkey Red" was used for redwork. The color Turkey Red was known for it's colorfastness in a time when many dyes were unstable. DMC floss #304 is the closest to the red used in traditional redwork. But any red floss of your choice would be fine. Or you may use any color of floss you wish. I have made "redwork" projects using mauve, pink, or purple floss. Today there really are no rules as far as color choice only that you use the same color for the entire project. Any color you wish to use is acceptable.
By the 1940's redwork became less popular and did not resurface again until the 21st century. There are now even pre-printed redwork fabrics available that are ready to use as printed or you may stitch the patterns and use them that way.
Redwork by hand
Today, many redwork and bluework patterns are available in books and magazines for purchase but there is also a wide variety of redwork patterns available free online. Just type "redwork" into your favorite online search engine and begin looking for just the right pattern for your first project.
Some redwork designs are available in iron on transfer patterns. These can be easily transferred to muslin fabric with a hot iron. Be sure to read the instructions that come with your transfer product to have the correct heat setting for your iron. Another way to transfer is to use a light box or tape your pattern to a window right side up and place your fabric right side up over the pattern and tape. Make sure your design is centered and simply trace your pattern.
Most embroidery instructions suggest using a single layer of white muslin. White for redwork is the traditional color of choice but you may use off-white muslin. It is a personal choice and anything goes. Be sure your fabric is evenly woven for even stitches. Cut your fabric at least two inches larger than your final cutting size so you can trim after stitching.
Some instructions ask for a double layer of muslin. You prepare a double layer of muslin by simply ironing them together before placing them in a hoop. Just ironing the two layers together will allow friction to hold them. Fusible or basting spray is not recommended. Stitch as usual. The reason for the double layer is the knots and crossovers do not show through the two layers as readily as through one layer of fabric.
Your embroidery hoop should be small. It is ideal to have your fingers under the stitching area so a hoop about twice the size of your hand is ideal. A six to eight inch hoop is ideal for most projects but for very small projects you might want to purchase a four inch hoop. If you prefer to embroider without a hoop it is perfectly fine to do so.
There are two types of embroidery hoops. Spring type hoops work well. This hoop is an outer plastic circle with an inner metal spring that is squeezed and placed in the plastic ring and released. There is also a hoop with an inner plastic ring and an outer plastic ring that is placed over the fabric on the inner ring and tightened with a screw. Plastic hoops are preferred because they will not rust. Be sure to remove your project from the hoop between embroidery sessions. This avoids permanent distortion to the fabric.
Needles -- You will need embroidery needles. They have a larger eye for ease of threading. Size 7 embroidery needles are a good size. By a package of assorted and try them all to find out what size works best for you. Embroidery should be fun so don't get stressed about it.
When stitching redwork use two strands of embroidery floss. Most patterns ask for two strands but three strands make a slightly thicker line and shows up nicely. It depends on how intricate your design is. If your design is more intricate you would want to use two strands in the main areas and one strand for very small details.
Here are some tips for working with floss. First cut a length from your skein approximately 18-24" long. Separate the strands at one end. Pull only one strand clear out -- just pull -- the remainder of the strands will bunch but as soon as your one strand is completely removed the remaining strands will relax. Repeat for one or two more strands depending on how many strands you are using. Dampen the strands you are using with a damp cloth, damp sponge or saliva. This will straighten them. Don't get them too wet. Thread them through the needle and knot the end. Begin stitching.
The stitch used is either a stem or outline stitch following the solid lines. Stem and outline stitches look very much alike only they are worked slightly different. Sometimes there is a dashed line in the pattern -- if so a running stitch is used. There are many excellent instructions online or in books that demonstrate how to do the stem or outline stitch for embroidery.
When embroidery is finished remove markings from fabric if you used a washable marker. Press embroidery with stitching face down on a terry cloth hand towel. This will keep the stitching from becoming flat. Trim block to specified size.
Redwork is a project that doesn't take a lot of equipment. All you will need is a small embroidery hoop, embroidery needles, floss, a marking pen or pencil of your choice, and your pattern. If you usually use a thimble you will probably want one. Many embroider without a thimble or hoop. All the items you need to do redwork can be carried in a small zip plastic bag and taken to doctor's appointments, meetings, and sports.
Redwork Embroidery by Machine
Redwork embroidery can be achieved on the sewing machine. First you will need to trace your design on fabric as with hand redwork. Thread both the top and bobbin with machine embroidery thread or use two spools of regular sewing thread.
If you don't have embroidery thread available try using two spools of ordinary sewing thread. Simply thread the same needle with both threads. The stitches will have a thicker appearance. A #80 needle should work well but if your thread is thicker and breaking or fraying, you might want to go to a larger needle or topstitching needle.
Experiment with different utility and decorative stitches on your sewing machine. A "triple-strength" stitch works best to simulate redwork or bluework. Another way to describe this stitch is "two stitches forward and one stitch backward". This stitch is sometimes recommended for straight seams on knits. I used the stitch length of 2.0.
If you are accustomed to using a hoop with your machine you might want to use for this application, otherwise simply stabilize the fabric with a commercial stabilizer or by ironing a layer or two of freezer paper to the reverse side of the drawn pattern. The stabilizer or freezer paper is torn away after stitching.
Begin by pulling bobbin thread to the top. Start sewing your design from the center outward. Stitch slowly and carefully. Stitch the design with your machine set in the "needle down" position. That way when you stop you won't move the fabric and have a "glitch" in your stitching line. Continue stitching until all lines are stitched.
Remove block from sewing machine. Clip thread tails and tear away freezer paper. You should have a block that looks very close to hand redwork.
If you choose to stitch redwork or bluework either by hand or by machine you will have a new design element for blocks for your latest quilts, wall hangings or pillows.