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redwork: a textile tradition in america

 

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Decorative Art Needlework

Plain needlework refers to textiles that have no decoration and are usually made simply for utilitarian purposes. Decorative art needlework refers to textiles that have designs or patterns and can be used for utilitarian purposes but are more often made solely for decorations on clothes or to decorate homes and religious settings. Many sewing techniques are used in making decorative needlework.

Although textile artists around the world have long decorated their needlework, making textiles solely for decorations became especially popular in the United States during the late nineteenth century. Redwork, one style of decorative needlework, first reached its peak of popularity-- especially in the United States--between 1888 and 1925 and it is now popular again.
     
Photo of Little Miss Muffet quilt  

Little Miss Muffet Quilt
Maker Unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
ca. 1921-1923
76” x 72”
MSUM #2001:160.11
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

The “Little Miss Muffet” quilt may have been made either by or for children. It features an array of motifs whose subjects would appeal to children, including animals and nursery rhyme characters. The term “kindergarten blocks” is used to describe this type of outline work—Redwork designs appealing to children that were stitched by children as young as six or seven.

Several of the blocks in this quilt are done in cross-stitch, one of the first styles of stitches a beginner learned. Several of the figures are small in scale indicating they could have been taken from patterns for children’s clothing and accessories. Six of the designs in this quilt appeared in the 1920 editorial, “Simple Designs That Little Miss Can Embroider or Paint.”

     
Decorative Art Needlework and the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia

Before the advent of the Internet and satellite communications, fairs, festivals, and expositions were major events where showcases of arts, cultural history, and inventions from around the world were seen by thousands, even millions of visitors. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was seen by over nine million visitors and two of its exhibits had profound influences on styles and fashion in the United States. The Japanese Pavilion hosted the most extensive showing of Japanese art the Western world had ever seen and, soon after, American art and design reflected Japanese motifs. The Royal School of Art Needlework from Kensington, England showcased ornamental needlework made by students at the school. Inspired by this exhibit, American Candace Wheeler formed the New York Society of Decorative Arts, which similar to its English counterpart, provided art training to increase women's employment opportunities. Soon new decorative art schools and societies across the country were offering instruction in an array of decorative arts and new art journals provided information and instructions.
     
Photo of Holy Bible Coverlet  

Holy Bible Coverlet
Maker Unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
ca. 1892-95
70.5” x 73”
MSUM #2001:160.4
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

The format of the “Holy Bible Coverlet” mimics a Crazy quilt, a style popular during the same period as Redwork. A Herringbone stitch, know during the late nineteenth century as a Featherstitch, creates the appearance of individual sections, thus creating the look of a Crazy quilt. In contrast to Redwork quilts that utilized one color, one fabric, and only a few stitches, Crazy quilts typically showcased a variety of decorative stitches on a range of fabrics including silks, satins, and velvets.

Rendered on the Bible in the quilt’s center is a passage from Revelations 14:13: “Blessed Art the Dead, Which Die in the Lord.”   Does this passage imply the quilt was made as a memory quilt honoring someone who had died? An examination of the images depicted offer clues, but the quilt’s provenance is not known.

Several of the quilt’s embroidered designs reflect the ingenuity of its maker who used images found in advertisements for products such as Cuticura Soap, Imperial Grahnum, and Cod Liver Oil and probably tracings of items such as a teaspoon, keys, or a Bible.

     
Decorative Art Needlework and the Artistic Movements

The Aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century, associated with the work of James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, developed a cult of beauty promoting "art for art's sake." The influence of the Aesthetic movement affected literature, fine art, and interior design in Europe and the United States. The Arts and Crafts movement, originating in England and reflecting the thinking of John Ruskin and William Morris, celebrated design and craftsmanship. Included was the concept that a beautiful home was believed to reflect the morality and productivity of its inhabitants.

The effects of both artistic movements impacted decorative arts, including art needlework, as a craze spread across America during the late nineteenth century to embellish all sorts of household textiles.
     
Photo of Good Night Pillow sham  

Pillow Sham
ca. 1880
30” x 28”
MSUM #2004:157.6
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

     
Photo of Good morning pillow sham  

Pillow Sham
ca. 1880
30” x 28”
MSUM #2004:157.7
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

     
Photo of Life was Beauty Pillow sham  

Pillow Sham
ca. 1880
28” x 33”
MSUM #2004:157.1
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

     
Photo of Life was Duty Pillow Sham  

Pillow Sham
ca. 1880
28” x 33”
MSUM #2004:157.2
Deborah Harding Redwork Collection

     
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