The story of Penny Squares and other redwork
Outline embroidery played an important role in the history of quilting. It was used in blocks, most commonly penny squares, which were pieces of printed muslin that sold for one hundred each. Outline embroidery designs spanned many styles and themes, and many of these ancient patterns are still available to quilters today. In recent years, vintage rugs have been a primary source of outline embroidery for patchwork projects.
While contour embroidery itself is centuries old, it had its great success 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 realistically filled and shaded.
Although flower, bird and animal patterns were popular in the 19th century, children’s drawings by English artist Kate Greenaway predominated. Dressed in the costumes of the early 19th century, Greenaway’s figures began to appear in the 1860s and adorned all manner of objects, even after his last book was published in 1900. There were many similar children’s embroidery patterns, like those in Butterick’s 1889 manual Needlecraft, recently reissued by RL Shep. By the 1890s, contour embroidery had spread from bedspreads and duvets to pillowcases. So ubiquitous were the Sleeping Boy Goodnight / Good Morning motifs that a mass merchant, such as Montgomery Ward, sold pairs of cases pre-stamped with these designs in their 1894-1895 catalog. Ward also offered stamping suits with up to 75 patterns, including a full alphabet. The kit had white powder for dark fabrics and blue for light fabrics. The pattern was pierced with a toothed scribing wheel, or the piercings could be made on a sewing machine with an unthreaded needle. The powder was then rubbed through the holes onto the fabric. Montgomery Ward also sold embroidery thread in many colors, although in 1900, turkey red was the most popular shade for embroidering outlines on pillowcases and duvets.
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 collection of the Museum of American Folk Art, has coal shuttles depicting the United Mine Workers’ strike of that year. Happy events also found their way into the redwork embroidered quilts; for example, the Pan American Exposition of 1901 and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Redwork persisted beyond the 20th century. An old quilt, made of 16 large blocks, included some embroidery with the words “Declared War 1914” and “Armistice signed 1918”. The date “1922” was embroidered on a monogrammed crown.
Children, however, continued to be the preferred subjects for contour embroidery. Whether they are sewn in red or other colors, children’s patterns were usually drawn from illustrations in books and magazines. 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 adorned countless embroidered and applied quilts.
Dutch children’s patterns, embroidered in blue or red thread, reached their peak of popularity just before the First World War. Dolly Dingle and Billy Bumps, drawn by Grace Drayton, rose to fame as Campbell Soup Kids and as embroidery themes. Rose O’Neill’s Kewpies provided stiff competition, particularly in the 1920s.
Other important themes from the interwar decades included cabins, flower baskets, and Western themes, especially cowboys. President Roosevelt’s Scottish mascot, Fala, practically had a souvenir industry all to himself. The puppy was used in many needle projects. World War II produced embroidery motifs of cartoon-shaped sailors and soldiers and their boyfriends. Postwar, cute overweight French puppies, kittens, chickadees, and chefs appeared in outline embroidery, mostly on tablecloths, pillowcases and ruffles, tea towels instead of bedspreads, though today’s quilts could make adorable creations based on these designs.
From time to time in antique stores and fairs, really old pillowcases appear, but they are often expensive. Separate redwork blocks, which are usually sold in a set, are more affordable. 1920-1950 rugs and tea towels will rarely cost more than $ 10 each and can cost as little as a dollar. Some quilt guilds may have collections of old designs that members can track down. Flea markets and yard sales are good sources for old, unused transfers, stamped but never embroidered items, and even floss in colors that are no longer available. The Chinese painting patterns in old magazines and books were similar to the embroidery designs of that decade, so they can be substituted.
For those who enjoy reliving the past with tradition-rich quilts, performing penny square reproductions and other outline embroidery work can be quite satisfying. And what girl wouldn’t love to have a quilt sewn with kittens, puppies, Kewpies, or nursery rhyme figures for her bed?