Redwork Embroidery was very popular from about 1880-1920. Patterns
were stitched in red (sometimes blue) on a muslin background. This
type of stitching, popularized by the Kensington School for Girls
in England during the 1880s, was called the Kensington stitch but
we know it today as backstitching or outline stitching. The reason
Red was chosen is because it was a sturdy cotton thread that could
be counted on not to fade or bleed. This time period was also
before DMC floss was available in the United States and other
color choices were available only in silks.
Catalogues of the time period
offered "penny squares"--small sheets of muslin with
stamped patterns that sold for pennies apiece. Older women have told us that
they can remember going to the local dry goods store as a little
girl and picking out a pattern to have stamped for embroidery.
They would stitch this design during their free time each week.
Many looked forward to the Saturday trips to town to pick out
their next design.
Themes on penny squares included historical figures, animals,
flowers, household items, fruit and vegetables, children and
nursery rhymes. Pictures had different meanings. For instance,
horse shoes were a sign of good luck, angels ensured the
safekeeping of children, and each flower had a secret meaning.
Children were often given penny squares to work on, especially
when convalescing from an illness. My own grandmother, recalling
how she learned "fancy work," decided that I should
learn to stitch using penny squares when I was nine years old. (In
Redwork’s heydey, nine would have been considered quite
"old" for learning how to stitch!) Table and luncheon
cloths, dishtowels, quilt blocks, pillow shams, pillowcases, tea
towels and splashers (used behind a wash bowl) all featured