Redwork embroidery is a form of needlework worked in monochrome, or a single colour thread. Unlike blackwork, however, it is not a counted thread technique but worked in surface embroidery.
As the name suggests it is normally worked in red thread, as at the time it was first popular (the 1800's) the dying technique used for red thread was colorfast whereas other colors weren't. Gradually the dying process improved and other colours could be used. Similar work, carried out in blue thread is often called bluework or blue redwork.
Redwork is a simple embroidery method and quick to stitch. Basically patterns are traced in outline stitch, stem stitch or split stitch with the occasional use of french knots or a little satin stitch included. Outline stitch is very similar to stem stitch, in fact it only differs in which way the thread is held, below or above the line of stitching.
Redwork was undertaken by students at the Royal School of Needlework, in Kensington, London in the late years of the 19th Century giving rise to the alternative name for Outline Stitch of Kensington Stitch.
Worked on basic white muslin using just one color thread, the cost of redwork embroidery was within reach of the lower classes. As only the outlines were stitched, this type of needlework also used less thread than the more elaborate styles.
Because simple stitches were used, even young children were able to attempt it, but it can take quite a bit of skill to get a really good result, so it can provide an adequate challenge to adult stitchers also.
After the extravagant use of decorative embroidery on crazy patchwork, the late Victorian stitcher began to use redwork to stitch useful items for the home, such as dish towels, coverlets, hairdressing capes (worn around the shoulders while ladies had their hair cut), splashers (a type of hanging towel, positioned behind the wash stand, that helped prevent splashes on the wall), pillow covers or shams, laundry bags, cloths to cover sideboards and later, quilts.
In addition to thousands of patterns available commercially, ready to sew squares known as "Penny Squares" were sold in the early 1900's. These were normally sewn together to form pillow shams or quilts, sometimes with plain red "sashing" between each block. A popular subject of these squares was a little girl wearing a bonnet that covered her face, who became known as Sunbonnet Sue. A little boy, known as either Overall Sam or Overall Bill, followed on behind. These characters were stitched in redwork, and also appliquéd onto quilt blocks.
Penny Squares Redwork is a book full of 250 iron on transfers that you can purchase from Amazon.
Many modern day needleworker's still like to stitch quilt blocks in redwork embroidery, tending to keep to authentic hand drawn, naïve patterns of animals, birds, flowers, fruit, vegetables and people.One of my favourite redwork pattern books is Nature's Beauty in Redwork by Debra Feece. Inside you will find beautiful floral bouquets, bird portraits, and my favourite, some wonderful pond scenes.
The idealized Victorian children drawn by the London artist Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), were also popular with redwork stitchers. They wore sunbonnets, mob caps and smocked dresses and resemble the costumes worn in Regency times, even though each character existed only in Kate's imagination.
Many authentic redwork patterns incorporated lettering. Phrases such as "Good morning", "Good night" and "Sweet dreams" were often used.
Today, there are many patterns available online and also sources of ideas for patterns can be found in children's coloring books. If you want to have a go, why not start with the first of my free redwork embroidery patterns, the cute hen you can see at the top of this page. It would look lovely made up as a pincushion for your workbasket.