The Penny Square Redwork Quilt

1904 Penny Square Redwork Quilt

The Penny Square quilt was given to me by a client and friend, who found it many years ago on one of her estate sale excursions. When she rediscovered it recently, put away in storage, she decided to give it a new life in the Longsmith Cottage studio! It inspired me to research the history of this type of embroidered quilt.

Redwork Embroidery was very popular from about 1880-1920, and got its name from Turkey red cotton embroidery thread, a machine-made thread that became popular in the late 19th century because it was inexpensive and colorfast. Most other threads of the day suffered from color bleeding. Patterns were stitched in red (and later, 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. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that women began to use redwork embroidery for bedcoverings. Preprinted squares ready to embroider were sold. Sears & Roebuck and other catalogues of the time period offered “penny squares”–small sheets of muslin with stamped patterns for one penny each. The quilt blocks used for redwork quilts ranged from six to ten inches across. They were usually embroidered then sewn together without any sashing between the blocks. Often a feather or cross-stitch was used to cover the seam line. Later a red or red print sashing was sometimes used. Some of these bedcoverings were quilted while others were simply lined without batting and then tied at the corners of each block.

This quilt tells such a fun story! One block is embroidered with the names Florence and Helen, and the date 1904. Based on this block, the cute, child-like subject matter of the other blocks, and the less-than-expert embroidery, I like to think that Florence and Helen were young girls, maybe sisters or friends, who began their first penny squares embroidery project to have something to do together. Several of the “penny squares” in this quilt show disintegration of the muslin, as well as of the embroidery (or perhaps the embroidery was just never finished). It may be that the blocks were joined into a quilt a bit later, since there is evidence that the binding was applied by machine rather than by hand. Size: 68″ x 72″