Signatures from past

A full redwork quilt is pictured. This type of work, which took its name from an embroidery thread known as Turkey Red, has enjoyed a revival in recent years. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

Redwork, an almost forgotten part of our quilting and needlework history, has enjoyed a revival in recent years. Popular in the late 1870s to 1920, Redwork took its name from an embroidery thread known as Turkey Red.

In the mid-1800s the process of producing Turkey Red became simplified and less expensive. Consequently, this form of needlework became extremely popular among common people. Turkey Red cotton thread was not only colorfast but also less costly than the silk threads used at the time.

Redwork began in England at the Royal School of Art Needlework in Kensington where students decided to work on designs simply using the outline stitch embroidery. For this reason, the stitch became known as the Kensington Stitch. Although little girls often learned how to embroider in school, they practiced embroidery on penny squares provided by their mothers.

A square of white cotton with a stamped design cost a penny, as did the skein of red floss. Today we simply refer to these penny squares as Redwork.

Redwork began to emerge in America as a result of the Kensington Royal School of Art Needlework’s exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.

American women were intrigued with this ornamental embroidery and it began replacing previous styles of needlework in popularity. This trend became known as art needlework to separate it from plain sewing. Women began decorating all sorts of objects with embroidery as a means of adding beauty and serving as an artistic expression.

Household objects of all sorts were embellished with simple or intricate designs. Animals, flowers, toys, children and people were stitched as well as playful storybook and nursery rhyme characters. The origins of Redwork are closely related to crazy quilting, which also emerged from the Centennial Exposition and shared many of the same influences.

Initially, patterns were marked on fabrics using perforated parchment paper and a pouch of marking powder. As Redwork became more and more popular, iron on transfers were developed and complete kits for marking became available through magazines and newspapers. Manufacturers encouraged women to start a home business of stamping fabrics for friends and neighbors.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that women began to use Redwork embroidery for bed coverings. Some bed coverings were simply hand tied while others were quilted. Few vintage Redwork quilts remain with most in private collections or museums.

The Marquette Regional History Center quilt collection contains one significant Redwork quilt donated to the museum in 1979 by the Sundstrom Estate. Unfortunately no background information is available as to the maker, the date or the reason it was made.

The top has 20 blocks each containing nine signatures and the back has an additional five blocks with the Championites block in the center. It is possible that each group represents friends or family connections or they could be random members of the community? Could it have been done for a centennial year or other special event Each block measures 12 1/4 inches and the signature blocks are separated by a solid red sashing.

It appears that the signatures were done in pencil prior to the embroidery. The inconsistencies in workmanship indicate this quilt was a group effort.

During our research of this quilt, we were in contact with the Ishpeming Area Historical Society and became aware of a similar quilt in the Ishpeming area. An Ishpeming resident mentioned his friend’s mother had a tablecloth that she had everyone sign the first time they visited her home and she then embroidered over the signatures. We also learned that a similar quilt was on display at an Ishpeming church several years ago. These stories could be about the same quilt.

If you have any knowledge about the quilt in the MRHC collection donated by the Sundstrom family, please contact the museum curator, Jo DeYoung at 906-226-3571. We look forward to documenting more of the history surrounding this unique local quilt.