An introduction to Redwork Embroidery

Redwork embroidery is a simple technique, worked in a single shade of thread.  

Back in the 1800s when it was first popular, red was the only dye that was colorfast, hence its popularity for this stitch work.

Different colours came into use as the dying process improved. Similar work carried out in blue thread is known as bluework or blue redwork.

Because the design is outlined, with minimal filled areas, redwork is quick and easy to complete. The main stitches used include, stem (or outline), splitsatin and French knots

Outline Stitch often goes by the name Kensington Stitch, because students at the Royal School of Needlework, in Kensington, London, stitched Redwork in the late 19th Century.

Worked on basic white muslin (known as calico in the UK) using just one color thread, the cost of this needlework was within reach of the lower classes. 

Because of the simple stitches used, redwork is suitable for young children. But it can take skill to get good results, and therefore provides an adequate challenge to adults.



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. These included...

  • dish towels
  • coverlets
  • hairdressing capes (worn around the shoulders while ladies had their hair cut) 
  • splashers (a type of hanging towel, positioned behind the washstand that helped prevent splashes on the wall), 
  • pillow covers or shams
  • laundry bags
  • cloths to cover sideboards 
  • and later, quilts.

Common redwork embroidery designs

Popular in the early 1900s, "Penny Squares" (ready to stitch blocks), were embroidered, then sewn together to form pillow shams or quilts.

These squares often featured Sunbonnet Sue, a young girl wearing a bonnet that covered her face. A little boy, known as either Overall Sam or Overall Bill, was a companion design.

Many modern day needleworkers still like to stitch quilt blocks in redwork, keeping 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 children illustrated by the London artist Kate Greenaway (1846-1901), were also popular with redwork stitchers. Wearing sunbonnets, mob caps and smocked dresses they resemble the costumes worn in Regency times, even though each character existed only in Kate's imagination.

Many original redwork patterns incorporated lettering, such as the phrases "Good morning", "Good Night" and "Sweet Dreams".

Today, many patterns are available online, and sources of ideas for embroidery can be found in children's coloring books.

I have designed a free redwork embroidery pattern for you to stitch as an introduction to the craft.

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