What’s With the Red?

April 2010


In 1829, a great technological advancement set off a needlework revolution. A new multi-stage dyeing process was developed that produced a colorfast red. It took a few decades before fabric and thread were widely available in the new color. Named for its eastern Mediterranean origins and not for the gloriously-feathered bird, Turkey red was guaranteed not to run in the wash or fade from sunlight. Turkey red cost more than other colors, but women were willing to pay extra for the wonder color. Taking advantage of the aesthetically pleasing combination of bright red stitches on a white background, women began using Turkey red to embroider household linens with simple outline designs of flowers, animals, and children. The embroidery style soon became known as redwork.


The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia included exhibitions of art needlework, establishing a distinction between sewing for decoration and sewing for utility. Women began adorning napkins, tablecloths, chair covers, sink splashers, pillowcases, dresser scarves, cushions, and every other conceivable household linen with redwork designs. As the popularity of redwork grew, thousands of outline drawings became available, and they became more intricately detailed. Designs also became specialized according to use. Designs for kitchen linens would include drawings of dinnerware, cookware, or fruits and vegetables. Sink splashers, hung behind sinks to keep walls dry, featured water-themed scenes including fish, waterfowl, plants, lily pads, and frogs.  Motivating words and inspirational phrases also became commonly incorporated into designs.


Popular women’s magazines included tear-out iron-transferable redwork designs and also featured mail-away offers for free designs. At first, the sizes of designs varied widely. With time, sizes became more standardized and thus simplified the task of creating uniform-sized quilt blocks. Designs became so numerous that a single quilt could include representations of presidents, buildings, birds, flowers, Beatrix Potter characters, women, men, children, animals, bicycles, tea kettles, flags, and nursery rhyme scenes. Adding Turkey red sashing between the blocks created a dramatic-looking and highly personalized quilt. Redwork adornment of linens and redwork quilts were popular well into the 1920s and 1930s. Quilt historians can often date quilts fairly accurately just by examining which redwork designs are included in the quilt. 


Last May, I began hand quilting a queen-sized whole-cloth quilt. Having seen many examples of redwork, I was inspired to use red quilting thread and red backing fabric. After 11 months, the quilt is about 30% complete. Requiring an estimated 125,000 quilting stitches total, I suspect the quilt will take another two years to finish. After that, it will be an everyday quilt for my bed. Completing a quilt for one’s own bed not only provides a fulfilling sense of accomplishment, but has the added benefit of extra motivation to make one’s bed every day.