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redwork: A textile tradition in america


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Redwork, a style of "art needlework," first became popular in the United States in the late part of the nineteenth century. This essay explores the reasons why this style of needlework has been popular and the range of objects that have been made in this style. The exhibition draws heavily on objects, ephemera, and archival material from the Michigan State University Museum collections, in particular, the Deborah Harding Redwork Collection.
What is Redwork?

Redwork is a style of decorative needlework that consists of embroidering the outline of designs onto a white or off-white background with a contrasting color thread. This simple, yet striking style is called Redwork for several reasons. Red thread is typically used in this style because the red color contrasts well against a light background; also, during the nineteenth century when the style first became popular, artists could obtain a red thread that was "colorfast," meaning that the red coloring would not wash out or "bleed" onto the white fabric.

Redwork includes many different types of textiles and particularly quilts, clothing, and household items. While Redwork was especially popular during the late nineteenth century in America, artists around the world have continued to make it. Today, artists of Redwork even have websites, blogs, and listservs.
Photo of Mikado quilt  

Mikado Quilt

Maker Unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
ca. 1890
66” x 66”
MSUM #2001:160.2
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

Japanese-inspired designs became increasingly popular in America after the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition where more than nine million people were reported to have visited the Japanese pavilion.  A variety of Asian-inspired motifs became popular in American art, including cranes, kimono clad figures, fans, teacups, vases, bowls, paper lanterns, spiders in webs, apple blossoms, and chrysanthemums. The Mikado, a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan set in Japan, debuted to amazing success in 1885.  By May 1886, patterns inspired by the Mikado began appearing in Godey’s Ladies Book and soon after, Mikado patterns were offered by a number of magazines.

What is "Turkey Red"?

"Turkey Red" is the name of a natural dye used to color fabric. It was thought to have originated in India then spread through the Middle East where it obtained its popular name. Dye masters used the root of the Madder plant to create the red dye that, when used to color fabrics, did not fade or "bleed" onto other fabrics when they were washed. By the mid-nineteenth century, both Turkey Red dyed thread and the dye itself were available in North America. Synthetic dyes became available around 1875 and provided a wider range of red colors but thread or fabric dyed in these synthetic dyes often faded to a rose or even brownish red. The Turkey Red dye typically cost more than other dyes but its durability was highly valued.
Photo of Nursery Rhyme quilt  

Nursery Rhyme Quilt
Maker Unknown
ca. 1910
74” x 78”
MSUM #2001:160.7
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

The “Nursery Rhyme Quilt” may have been embroidered by several different people, possibly children. It is not uncommon for Redwork blocks to have been stitched by children. The simple stitches used in Redwork could teach embroidery skills and many of the whimsical designs found in Redwork would have appealed to children.

Representations from a number of nursery rhymes included on this quilt are Goosey Goosey Gander, Who Killed Cock Robin?, Old Mother Hubbard, Humpty Dumpty, and Mother Goose. A number of companies offered perforated patterns and stamped linens in sets advertised as Mother Goose or Nursery Rhymes.

An intriguing design found on the quilt is the boat located in the quilt’s fifth row. It is a depiction of the Hudson River Day Lines’ Henrick Hudson. The embroidered design may have been a penny square sold in souvenir shops at the pier or distributed to commemorate the boat’s maiden voyage in 1906.

The Deborah Harding Collection

Deborah Harding, a textile historian, became interested in researching Redwork when she came across a Redwork quilt at a New York City flea market. Her subsequent extensive inquiry into the origins of this textile style resulted in Red & White: American Redwork Quilts and Patterns (2000), the first major monograph on the topic. In 2001, Michigan State University Museum acquired her research collection which included notes, photographs, ephemera and examples of Redwork, including twelve quilts. These materials, added to the Museum's existing collection of Redwork and the subsequent pieces that Harding has donated, form a rich body of primary materials for many research projects.
Photo of Blue stars flag quilt top  

Blue Stars Flag Quilt Top
Maker Unknown
ca. 1890
62” x 74”
MSUM #2001:160.3
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

The “Blue Stars Flag” quilt top is named for the embroidered flag found near the center of the quilt. The flag’s design of forty-one small stars grouped around a larger star is symbolic of Montana’s admission to the United States as the forty-first state on November 8, 1889. This was the Union’s official flag for only three days, as the state of Washington was admitted on November 11, 1889.

Due to its short duration as the nation’s official flag, it is doubtful a commercial pattern was distributed for the flag pattern. An examination of the block reveals a row of pinhole-sized dots, indicating a perforated pattern was used to transfer the design to the fabric. To create the design, a different flag design may have been adapted, or the design may have been copied from a newspaper or illustrated circular.

Although little is known about this quilt’s origin, it is possible that the flag is a clue that the quilt was made in Montana or that the quiltmaker lived there at one time.

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