by Suzanne Labry
People come to the art of quiltmaking via a variety of routes, especially in this era when the internet makes information so readily accessible.
Two of the most enduring entry points to quilting, however, remain the influence of a loved one and an interest/expertise in other forms of needlework. These two traditional paths converged in the case of Rosie deLeon-McCrady, owner of Scarlet Today™/Redwork plus™, a business dedicated to all things redwork.
Quilt Right; Rosie deLeon-McCrady redrafted this quilt from vintage embroidered redwork and appliqued blocks. Photo courtesy of Rosie deLeon-McCrady.
“My mother taught me to embroider and my mother-in-law taught me to quilt,” Rose says. “So I married both of those traditions in redwork to honor those important women in my life.”
Redwork is a type of embroidery worked in red thread using simple stitches on a white or natural-colored fabric, such as muslin. Redwork’s popularity peaked during the latter decades of the 19th century and the early party of the 20th and derived primarily from the fact that the red dye used to color the thread would not run or fade, as did other colors at that time. (The dye, developed in Turkey, gave rise to the term Turkey red.)
As colorfast synthetic dyes in a rainbow of colors and affordable embroidery floss made from them flooded the market in the 1920s and ‘30s, redwork fell out of favor.
Initially not associated with quilts, redwork was ordinarily used to embellish household linens such as dishtowels, bureau scarves, chair back protectors, mantel covers, and splashers (a piece of fabric designed to catch spattered water, for example as on a washstand).
Additionally, redwork was frequently done on so-called penny squares—commercially sold, inexpensive 6”-8” blocks of fabric stamped with designs that included animals, flowers, toys, and nursery rhyme characters that were often used to teach children to embroider.
These squares readily lent themselves to a quilt format, however, and the most common early redwork “quilts” were summer weight coverlets without batting in which the redwork squares were stitched together with no sashing and either quilted to a backing using a featherstitch or tied with string or yarn.
Quilt Left: This quilt from Rosie deLeon-McCrady's collection was made from redwork blocks in 1896 to honor William McKinley, who served from 1897-1901 as the 25th United Sates President. Photo courtesy of Rosie deLeon-McCrady.
Rosie’s interest in redwork began in the early 1990s when her mother-in-law, quilter extraordinaire Kathleen McCrady, did a research paper on the topic as part of the process for becoming a certified quilt appraiser.
Already an accomplished embroiderer, Rosie had been inspired by Kathleen to take up quilting as well. When she discovered redwork embroidery and its application to quiltmaking, she was immediately hooked. She started collecting redwork and learning as much about it as she could.
Rosie had recently retired after 30 years with the State of Texas and was working at a quilt shop at the time. The shop owner encouraged her to start a redwork club, and she began ordering materials from a redwork-based business out of Ohio.
That initial interest turned into a fulltime commitment one eventful day when Rosie was ordering some needles for the redwork club. Rosie tells the story this way: “The woman who owned the business in Ohio said to me, ‘Why don’t you just buy the company?’ I had been looking for something that would allow me to use my talents and honor my mom, who died when I was 32, and Kathleen. And so I told her, ‘Let me call you back in 20 minutes.’ I discussed it with my husband, and we decided right then to go for it. We loaded up my car, drove to Ohio, and bought all her inventory.”
Since that time, Rosie has expanded the business into a full-fledged redwork emporium, offering an extensive line of patterns (many of which she has designed herself), a wide selection of needles, kits, supplies, and books.
She delivers lectures and conducts workshops, and her large collection of vintage redwork pieces continues to grow. She has become a recognized authority on redwork, and was recently featured on an episode of “The Quilt Show” with Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims (Show 1509 - Seeing Red: Ramp Up Your Redwork!). “Redwork was an almost forgotten part of our quilting and needlework history,” Rose adds. “But now it is enjoying a revival.”
Rosie deLeon-McCrady is definitely doing her part to make sure that redwork is remembered for generations to come. Her mother would be proud and her mother-in-law is delighted.