The History of Penny Squares and Other Redwork4 min read
Outline embroidery played a significant part in quilting history. It was used in blocks, most commonly penny squares, which were printed muslin pieces selling for one cent each. Outline embroidery designs encompassed many styles and subjects, and many of these old patterns are still available for today’s quilters. In recent years, vintage doilies have been a primary source of outline embroidery for patchwork projects.
While outline embroidery itself is centuries old, it hit its stride as a quilt decoration in the 1870s and 1880s when it was used to decorate Crazy Quilts. Done in one color with a stem or outline stitch, it was faster and easier than another Victorian technique called Kensington embroidery, which was filled in and realistically shaded.
Although flower, bird, and animal patterns were popular in the 19th century, designs featuring drawings of children by English artist Kate Greenaway predominated. Dressed in the costumes of the early 1800s, Greenaway’s figures began appearing in the 1860s, and they adorned all sorts of objects, even after her last book was published in 1900. There were many similar embroidery patterns of children, such as those appearing in Butterick’s 1889 manual Needle-Craft, recently republished by R. L. Shep. By the 1890s, outline embroidery had spread from bedspreads and quilts to pillowcases. So ubiquitous were the Good Night/Good Morning sleeping child motifs that a mass-merchandiser, such as Montgomery Ward, sold pairs of cases pre-stamped with these designs in its 1894-1895 catalog. Ward also offered stamping outfits with as many as 75 patterns, including a complete alphabet. The kit had white powder for dark fabrics and blue for light ones. The pattern was perforated with a serrated tracing wheel, or the perforations could be made on a sewing machine with an unthreaded needle. Powder was then rubbed through the holes onto the fabric. Montgomery Ward also sold embroidery floss in many colors, although by 1900, turkey red was the most popular shade for outline embroidery on pillowcases and quilts.
Some women marked or stamped their own fabrics. They used commercially available patterns or outline drawings found in coloring books. A 1902 quilt, in the Museum of American Folk Art’s collection, has coal shuttles representing the United Mine Workers strike of that year. Happy events found their way onto redwork embroidered quilts, too; for example, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Redwork persisted past the 1900s. An antique quilt, made of 16 large blocks, included some embroidered with the words “War declared 1914″ and ”Armistice signed 1918.” The date “1922” was embroidered in a monogrammed wreath.
Children, however, continued to be the most favored subjects for outline embroidery. Whether sewn in red or other colors, patterns of children were usually gleaned from book and magazine illustrations. In the early 1900s, for example, Bertha Corbett’s Sunbonnet Babies and Bernhardt Wall’s Overall Boys took off where Kate Greenaway’s patterns ended and went on to grace countless embroidered and appliqued quilts.
Patterns of Dutch children, embroidered in blue or red thread, peaked in popularity just before World War 1. Dolly Dingle and Billy Bumps, drawn by Grace Drayton, went on to find fame as the Campbell Soup Kids and as embroidery subjects. Rose O’Neill’s Kewpies provided strong competition, particularly in the 1920s.
Other important themes of the between wars decades included cottages, baskets of flowers, and Western themes, especially cowboys. President Roosevelt’s pet scottie, Fala, practically had a souvenir industry unto himself. The little dog was used in many needle projects. World War II produced embroidery motifs of cartoon-like sailors and soldiers and their sweethearts. By the postwar period, cute puppies, kittens, chickadees, and overweight French chefs appeared in outline embroidery, mostly on tablecloths, pillowcases, and dust ruffles, tea towels rather than quilts, although today’s quilters could make adorable creations based on these designs.
Really old redwork pillowcases surface from time to time at antique shops and shows, but they’re often expensive. Separate redwork blocks, usually sold in a set, are more affordable. Doilies and tea towels of 1920-1950 vintage will rarely run more than 10 dollars each and can cost as little as one dollar. Some quilt guilds may have collections of old designs that members can trace. Flea markets and garage sales are good sources of old, unused transfers, stamped but never embroidered items, and even floss in no longer available colors. China-painting patterns from old magazines and books were similar to the embroidery designs of that decade, so they can be substituted.
For those who enjoy reviving the past with quilts rich in tradition, the making of penny square reproductions and other outline embroidery work can be quite satisfying. And what little girl wouldn’t love to have a quilt stitched with kitties, puppies, Kewpies, or nursery rhyme figures for her bed?