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quilts and textiles

Redwork: A Textile Tradition in America

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The exhibit explores the history and art of Redwork, a needlework technique that was especially popular in the United States between the 1880s and the 1920s. Redwork is a style of decorative needlework that consists of embroidering the outline of designs onto a white or off-white backgroung with a contrasting color of thread. 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 traces the cultural, social and technological factors that led to the development and dissemination of this textile tradition, in particular, how one cultural event, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, stimulated popular engagement in this art form. By the late 1880s, patterns and designs were ubiquitous in national women's magazines, such as The Ladies Home Journal, newspapers and journals, and department and dry goods stores.

"Another result of the Redwork debut at the 1876 Centennial Expo was the formation of the New Your Society of Decorative Arts, which similar to its English counterpart, provided art training to increase women's employment opportunities at that time," notes Mary Worrall, MSU Museum assistant curator of Folk Arts. "Although textile artists around the world had long [decorated their needlework for their homes], making textiles solely for decorations became especially popular and prolific at this time," she adds. Redwork designs can still be found in some needlework magazines and stores today.

Deborah Harding, a textile historian, became interested in researching Redwork when she came across a 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.

Include in this exhibition is a sampling of the MSU Museum's collection of textiles that highlights the Redwork needlework technique. The exhibition draws heavily on objects, ephemera, and archival material from the Michigan State University Museum collections, in particular, the Deborah Harding Redwork Collection.


No current bookings. This exhibit is available.

This exhibit appeared at the Michigan State University Museum, East Lansing, MI.

  Rental fee (12 week period) $5,000, plus shipping
  Number of pieces: 11 quilts, various textiles (clothing pillow shams) displaying Redwork, assorted ephemera
  Running feet required: 100 running feet
  Insurance Value: $30,000
  Security requirement: Lockable, limited access display area; trained guards or comparable protection system; provisions to prevent public from touching objects; object handling by museum professionals; temperature and light controls; fire protection according to local ordinances
  Additional materials available: Press materials.

Photo of Blue Stars Flag quilt top made circa 1890.
Pictured: Blue Stars Flag Quilt Top, Maker Unknown, c1890, 62" x 74", MSUM#2001:160.3.
Photo by Hossein Montararan, all rights reserved, MSU Museum.




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