Exhibit Hall

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 exhibition 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, it artists around the world have continued to make it. Today, artists of Redwork even have websites, blogs, and listservs.

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.

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.

Decorative Art Needlework

Plain needlework refers to textiles that have no decoration and are usually made simply for utilitarian purposes. Decorative art needlework refers to textiles that have designs or patterns and can be used for utilitarian purposes but are more often made solely for decorations on clothes or to decorate homes and religious settings. Many sewing techniques are used in making decorative needlework.

Although textile artists around the world have long decorated their needlework, making textiles solely for decorations became especially popular in the United States during the late nineteenth century. Redwork, one style of decorative needlework, first reached its peak of popularity-- especially in the United States--between 1888 and 1925 and it is now popular again.

Decorative Art Needlework and the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia

Before the advent of the Internet and satellite communications, fairs, festivals, and expositions were major events where showcases of arts, cultural history, and inventions from around the world were seen by thousands, even millions of visitors. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was seen by over nine million visitors and two of its exhibits had profound influences on styles and fashion in the United States. The Japanese Pavilion hosted the most extensive showing of Japanese art the Western world had ever seen and, soon after, American art and design reflected Japanese motifs. The Royal School of Art Needlework from Kensington, England showcased ornamental needlework made by students at the school. Inspired by this exhibit, American Candace Wheeler formed the New York Society of Decorative Arts, which similar to its English counterpart, provided art training to increase women's employment opportunities. Soon new decorative art schools and societies across the country were offering instruction in an array of decorative arts and new art journals provided information and instructions.

Decorative Art Needlework and the Artistic Movements

The Aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, associated with the work of James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, developed a cult of beauty promoting "art for art's sake." The influence of the Aesthetic movement affected literature, fine art, and interior design in Europe and the United States. The Arts and Crafts movement, originating in England and reflecting the thinking of John Ruskin and William Morris, celebrated design and craftsmanship. Included was the concept that a beautiful home was believed to reflect the morality and productivity of its inhabitants.

The effects of both artistic movements impacted decorative arts, including art needlework, as a craze spread across America during the late nineteenth century to embellish all sorts of household textiles.

Marketing Redwork

During the 1880s, Redwork supplies became accessible across the nation. Widely distributed American women's magazines such as The Ladies' Home Journal and Godey's Lady's Book published embroidery patterns, listed advertisements for patterns, and offered patterns and Redwork stamping kits as premiums for subscribers. Newspapers and journals also carried advertisements for pattern companies, thread manufacturers, needlework products and local sources for these items.

Supplies could be purchased through the mail or at local department stores, fabric stores (called "dry goods stores"), or even at small businesses specializing in Redwork. Some of these outlets also offered customized patterns for their customers. Today, Redwork designs can also be obtained through the Internet.

Redwork as Income

Redwork demands skill in stamping (transferring designs onto fabric) and in embroidery (stitching the designs). Both embroidery and stamping for others became a way for individuals, usually women, to earn money in the home. Stamping pattern companies even recruited women to become professional stampers.

Most Redwork embroidery was done by the person who purchased a stamped design but in some cases, particularly in items produced as fundraisers, a talented embroiderer was recruited to do the needlework.

Redwork: Design Types, Designers, Sources, and Influences

Designs used by needlework artists in Redwork are varied and reflect individual interests and creativity as well as social, political, and artistic influences. Many designs were of images or motifs thought to be closely associated with woman's domestic experiences: children, animals, birds, flowers, nursery rhymes, characters from children's fiction, household items, women's hairstyles, and fashion accessories such as fans or purses. Redwork designs were also made to commemorate significant events or important elements of popular culture in our nation's history, such as the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.

Certain designs were intended to be used on particular types of textiles. For instance, designs with the phrases "Good Morning" and "Good Night" were intended as pillow shams. By the early twentieth century a number of Redwork designs were developed and marketed specifically for use on quilt blocks.

Most designs and motifs used in Redwork were professionally drawn by illustrators and then commercially distributed. Although most designers were anonymous, two were well known. Artist Kate Greenaway was known for her drawings of children and flowers and Ruby McKim, for her designs often used for quilt blocks.

Redwork stitchers also created their own patterns. Their designs were often inspired by fashion illustrations, children's books, advertisements, political cartoons, teacher manuals, and wallpaper designs.

The designs used on a particular textile are important clues to dating the work, because many designs can be traced to specific manufacturers or relate to specific events in history.

Redwork and Fundraising Quilts

A strong and longstanding quilt tradition is the use, especially by women, of quilts to raise money for a wide variety of causes. Individuals and organizations have made thousands of dollars by making and selling, raffling, and auctioning off quilts. A particularly effective means of raising funds is through the making of subscription quilts, a form in which individuals, businesses, and organizations pay a small amount of money for the privilege of having their name inscribed on a quilt in support of a particular local, national, or even international cause. When other avenues to engage in support for these causes were denied women, making subscription quilts proved an effective tool to demonstrate their convictions and to channel skills and energies that would make a difference in the causes they believed in.

Names on subscription quilts were often done in Redwork. Because their primary purpose was to raise funds, the design and construction of subscription quilts were generally, though not always, simple. Many of these forms of quilts show little or no wear and are still extant in good condition, partially because these quilts were designed to be used as fundraisers and only incidentally, if at all, as bedcoverings, and partially because subscription quilts have been kept by organizations and individuals as documents of history. Many have been recorded in state and regional quilt documentation projects.

Redwork: Techniques of Transferring Designs to Fabric

Redwork decoration on fabric is done by embroidering (or sewing stitches) over a design that has been directly drawn onto fabric or a design that has been transferred to the fabric from another source. Several methods can be used to transfer a design.

Perforated paper technique: Designs are printed or drawn on thick, stiff paper and then small holes are pricked along the pattern lines to create a perforated pattern. A powder is rubbed over the holes which results in small dots in the same design on the fabric. Perforated patterns could be purchased or made at home and could be used multiple times. Stamping kits-- including a box of dark powder, one of light powder, and devices known as pounces to distribute the powder were widely advertised in women's magazines for purchase or as premiums. As an alternative to powders, stamping ink, sometimes in the form of wax cakes, could be used with perforated patterns.

Iron-on transfer technique: A hot iron is pressed against the back of a pattern sheet. The iron's heat transfers the design to the fabric.

Carbon paper transfer technique: Carbon paper or tracing paper is placed between the design and the fabric. Tracing the design transfers it to the fabric.

As the popularity of Redwork grew, pre-stamped fabric, sometimes known as "Penny Squares," became available. Today, designs can be printed directly onto fabric using a computer and printer.

Glossary of Needlework Terms

  • Batting - The middle layer of a quilt that provides padding and warmth.
  • Blanket or Buttonhole Stitch - A stitch sometimes used around the edges of a finished Redwork quilt or coverlet.
  • Featherstitch - A rounded, looped stitch used to cover joined seams (the point where two pieces of fabric are stitched together). During the late nineteenth century, the term Featherstitch was also used to describe a Herringbone Stitch.
  • Herringbone Stitch - A stitch comprised of crossed lines sometimes used to cover joined seams.
  • Muslin - A plain woven cotton fabric in a natural or bleached white color.
  • Penny Square - Muslin squares with stamped designs. Penny squares could be purchased for a penny at local department or fabric stores.
  • Splasher - A textile hung behind a washstand or sink to prevent walls from being splashed with water.
  • Stamping - A technique used to transfer Redwork designs to fabric.
  • Stamping Outfit - A craft kit that was sold to needleworkers. The kit included patterns, instructions, and supplies to transfer designs onto cloth in preparation for embroidery.
  • Stem Stitch - The basic stitch used in Redwork. It is a ropelike stitch that forms an unbroken line, giving the effect that the image has been sketched onto the fabric. A Stem Stitch is similar to an Outline Stitch.
  • Summer Spread - A single layer coverlet with finished edges or a lined coverlet that contains no batting.
  • Tidy - A textile used to protect the back, arms, or headrest of a chair or sofa from wear and soil.
  • Tied - A technique used to hold the layers of a quilt together using tied knots rather than quilting stitches.


The Deborah Harding Redwork Collection at the Great Lakes Quilt Center
Great Lakes Quilt Center
Michigan State University Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan 48824-1045

American Quilts from Michigan State University Museum, Marsha MacDowell, ed., Tokyo, Japan: Kokusai Art, 2003.

Red & White: American Redwork Quilts, Deborah Harding, New York: Rizzoli, 2000.

Ishpeming Signature Quilt
Maker Unknown

Ku Klux Klan Fundraising Quilt
Made by Chicora community members including Grace Rowe Way, Marie Tripp, and Ethel Smith

Mikado Quilt
Maker Unknown

Blue Stars Flag Quilt Top
Maker Unknown

Holy Bible Coverlet
Maker Unknown

Nursery Rhyme Quilt
Maker Unknown

Maker Unknown

Little Miss Muffet Quilt
Maker Unknown

Boy's Quilt
Maker Unknown

Redwork Quilt
Betty Quarton Hoard and Winifred Quarton

Redwork Quilt
Metta V. Rybolt with secondary embroidery by Betty MacDowell

Non-Quilt Objects


Project Coordinator and Curator: Mary Worrall, Michigan State University Museum
Curatorial Assistance: Marsha MacDowell, Michigan State University Museum
Research Consultant: Deborah Harding
Collections Manager: Lynne Swanson, Michigan State University Museum
Quilt Collections Assistant: Beth Donaldson, Michigan State University Museum
Photography and Digitization: Pearl Yee Wong, Michigan State University Museum
Virtual Exhibit: Mary Worrall, Michigan State University Museum, Justine Richardson, MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University
Exhibit Design and Installation: Juan Alvarez, Michigan State University Museum
Graphic Design: Melinda Hamilton, Michigan State University Museum
Public Relations: Lora Helou, Michigan State University Museum
Public Relations Assistant: Julia Meade, Michigan State University Museum
Museum Director: C. Kurt Dewhurst, Michigan State University Museum

The exhibition is supported in part by funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, MSUM Traveling Exhibition Endowment, and Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs with additional support from Michigan State University Museum and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University.

Great Lakes Quilt Center/Michigan State University Museum
Telephone: 517-432-3800
Email: quilts@museum.msu.edu
Website: http://www.museum.msu.edu/