Redwork embroidery was one of the most popular forms of art needlework through most of the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and into the Great Depression. Because it required only three beginner stitches (stem stich, lazy daisy, and French knot) and one color of thread (red) it was both simple and economical.
According to Deborah Harding in her book, Red and White: American Redwork Quilts, “[d]uring the last quarter of the nineteenth century, decorative surface embroidery on practical household linens came into vogue in America. Influenced by exhibitions at the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, this form of needlework replaced… stitchery on canvas. The term art needlework was used to describe this trend and to distinguish it from plain sewing” (Harding, 10).
Redwork patterns were readily available from all the fashionable ladies’ magazines via subscription, and came in a wide variety including farm animals, plants and flowers, buildings, letters, and portraits of famous people. Local stores, like The Boston Store Co. at 139-141 Glen Street in Glens Falls carried the latest Ladies' Home Journal embroidery catalog where one could come in a purchase the latest designs for a nickel, dime or 15¢ without a magazine subscription.
"Red on white was a popular color scheme for pillow shams, dresser scarves, tea towels... and other household accessories...The reason for that, aside from aesthetics, is that Turkey red was one of the few really colorfast threads you could buy, and these were items that would be subject to repeated launderings" (Harding, 48).
The "Turkey" in Turkey red actually refers to a large region in an around the country of Turkey which used a "multistage dying process... that produced a very resilient red" (Harding, 48). On the Turkey red Wikipedia page, the dye process is outlined as described in John Wilson's An Essay on Light and Colours from 1786.
1. Boil cotton in lye of Barilla or wood ash
2. Wash and dry
3. Steep in a liquor of Barilla (a salt-tolerant plant) ash or soda plus sheep's dung and olive oil
4. Rinse, let stand 12 hours, dry
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 three times.
6. Steep in a fresh liquor of Barilla ash or soda, sheep's dung, olive oil and white argol (potassium tartrate).
7. Rinse and dry
8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 three times.
9. Treat with gall nut solution
10. Wash and dry
11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 once.
12. Treat with a solution of alum, or alum mixed with ashes and Saccharum Saturni (lead acetate).
13. Dry, wash, dry
14. Madder once or twice with Turkey madder/rubia (this is where the red comes from) to which a little sheep's blood is added.
16. Boil in a lye made of soda ash or the dung liquor
17. Wash and dry
In all honesty, the reason I was drawn to redwork back in 2001 was because red is my favorite color. I had taught myself embroidery in 1998, but I didn't find the creative spark until I discovered redwork. Now I create my own patterns and designs, and embroider almost daily. I hope you have a chance to view my redwork exhibit on display in the Folklife Gallery or online through September 3, 2021. & enjoy this time lapse video Kevin filmed & edited of me embroidering the redwork portrait of Albany teacher & suffragist C. Mary Douge Williams currently on display.
Harding, Deborah. Red & White: American Redwork Quilts and Patterns. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2000.
“Turkey Red.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, December 16, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkey_red.
I also consulted the Redwork Suffrage Portrait Tea Cozies in the Folk Art Collection, & the Crandall Public Library photograph collection, 1863-2000 held in the Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library.
Suffragist C. Mary Douge Williams is featured in the Folklife Gallery exhibition, Equali-tea: Suffragist Tea Cozies in Redwork, A Suffrage Centennial exhibition.
Tisha Dolton is Librarian/Historian at The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, NY. Her areas of interest are suffrage music, suffragists of Warren and Washington Counties, local women and minority populations, and embroidery.
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