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While redwork embroidery by hand came first, redwork embroidery created by machines can now mimic the hand-embroidered technique while also stitching designs in a fraction of the time.
Redwork designs are relatively quick to digitize if you know what you’re doing. They’re even easier to machine embroider.
Want to learn more?
Check out what redwork is and how to master redwork machine embroidery in this tutorial!
What is redwork machine embroidery?
Redwork machine embroidery refers to low stitch-count embroidery designs composed of a single thread color.
Sometimes also called line designs, redwork embroidery designs are single-line, outline-like designs with open spaces and no fill stitches.
Redwork gained popularity in the 19th century thanks to innovations with vibrant red dyes. While no longer at the height of its popularity, redwork embroidery designs still have their unique place in quilts and other household linens.
While traditionally redwork referred to embroidery with red thread, bluework to embroidery with blue thread, and blackwork to embroidery with black thread, these terms have melded together; many embroiderers interchange them when referring to this style of stitching.
Hand Embroidered Redwork vs. Machine Embroidered Redwork
Redwork can be stitched by hand or machine, but machine embroidered redwork has several advantages.
First, machine embroidered redwork can be stitched in a fraction of the time.
Second, there is no need to transfer redwork embroidery patterns to fabric as with hand embroidery.
Last, machine embroidery allows the stitcher to embroider more fabrics than just those conducive to hand embroidery.
While hand embroidered redwork may have more “character,” machine embroidered redwork designs are stitched with motifs more perfectly spaced and sized in just minutes.
What Fabrics to Use for Redwork Embroidery
Since designs are simple and lightweight, solid-color, plain-weave fabrics are ideal for redwork embroidery. In general, a redwork design will show itself to the most significant advantage if your fabric isn’t multicolored or has distracting fluff for it to sink in.
Muslin, linen, dupioni, and quilting fabrics are popular redwork base fabric choices. However, thanks to the ability of embroidery machines to stitch on almost anything, redwork can be stitched onto even thin, stretchy fabrics.
Blank Options and Ideas For Redwork Projects
Quilts blocks are my favorite go-to blank for adding redwork embroidery designs.
However, other fun blanks include heirloom children’s clothing, aprons (I have one of my grandmother’s from the 1940s!), tea towels, table runners, Christmas ornaments, mug rugs, tote bags, pillowcases, and blankets without pile.
However, redwork designs can be embroidered on more than just fabrics! For example, balsa wood. (That’s my embroidered balsa wood above!)
One last fun project I did with a satin stitch design (the project could be created using an actual blackwork design) was the above dry-erasable coloring sheet. I stitched this Anita Goodesign design as a quilted block and then added clear vinyl on top, a layer of quilting cotton on the back, and finally, binding on the sides.
Supplies for Redwork Machine Embroidery
In addition to your embroidery machine, hoop, and marking and cutting tools, here are other supplies you need to consider.
1. Top Thread
Choose a single color of machine embroidery thread for traditional redwork.
However, if you want a little more personality, try a variegated thread that changes colors along its length.
Also, depending on the look you’re aiming for, you can select a 40wt (what most designs are digitized for) or thicker 30wt thread. If you want a fine design, a thinner 60wt thread could give the look you’re going for.
Thread fiber options include rayon or polyester, which have the lustrous sheen we all know and love. You could also opt for more of a vintage, matte finish by choosing cotton embroidery thread. Don’t forget metallic threads may also be an option to add a little sparkle!
2. Bobbin Thread
If the back of your embroidery design will not be visible, white machine embroidery bobbin thread in the correct weight for my machine is my go-to. I like that the bobbin thread is thinner than the top thread, decreasing the bulk of the design.
However, if the back of the design is seen, you can thread a bobbin with the thread you use for the top thread. This is much like creating free-standing lace, where the design will look similar on both sides of your embroidery blank.
Another time you may need to use the same side on top and back is if your machine isn’t stitching quite right and the bobbin thread is pulling to the top and is visible through needle holes.
Since linework embroidery designs typically have a low stitch count, you can use a medium-weight tear-away stabilizer on the back of most embroidery blanks.
If you have a delicate fabric and fear distortion when tearing off the stabilizer, you can also use wash-away stabilizer, which is removed with water. This type is also best for blanks with both sides visible, as it’s much easier to remove from small design motifs than tear-away.
If your design has a higher stitch density or you notice thread looping or poor design registration, you may need a fusible cut-away or no-show mesh stabilizer. Cut-away stabilizer types are also best for embroidering on stretchy fabrics.
Pick the smallest embroidery machine needle suitable for your fabric. Also, use a new needle to minimize fabric holes around thread insertions.
Hooping vs. Floating Blanks for Redwork
If you can hoop without stretching or distorting your fabric, this is my recommendation to minimize fabric movement during embroidery. Hooping too tight (especially if you’ve pulled the fabric once it’s hooped) or too loose can cause puckering and design issues, though.
Adhesive stabilizer, fusible stabilizer, or temporary fabric adhesive spray can make hooping easier, but these will make later removing small pieces of stabilizer more difficult.
If you aren’t a great hooper or if blanks are difficult to hoop (like mine with the hemmed edges), consider a magnetic hoop or floating the embroidery blank as long as you can stabilize it properly.
Digitizing Redwork Designs
Because of the low stitch count, redwork designs seem like they might be perfect for auto-digitizing from drawn images. Well, I’m here to tell you I’ve yet to have luck with this!
Thankfully, several modern embroidery software take the stress and guesswork out of digitizing redwork designs (you don’t have to worry about the perfect path!) with helpful tools.
For instance, if you use Hatch Embroidery, Janome Digitizer, or Bernina Embroidery Software, there’s an actual redwork tool that creates the perfectly pathed design for you with exactly two passes of thread.
If you don’t have fancy schmancy software, this redwork digitizing explanation from Lindee G explains the theory behind redwork digitizing very well!
FREE Redwork Machine Embroidery Designs
Need some ideas and don’t want to pay for designs quite yet?
Here’s a small selection of free machine embroidery redwork designs. (Or, close to redwork, which technically has two passes of thread. Some of these use either a single pass stitch or triple (bean) stitch but mimic the linework look.)
1. EmbroideryDesigns.com offers many free redwork designs. I used the Victorian Kiss design when embroidering cardstock years ago.
2. Scroll through Kreative Kiwi’s free designs, and you’ll see several linework options to download. They have free Christmas redwork designs, Halloween options, and also designs for other major holidays.
3. SWAK Embroidery is the master of free blackwork embroidery designs; scroll through their freebies to find many options.
If you need even more ideas for where to look, check out my monster post on where to find free machine embroidery designs for my list of favorite websites.
How to Embroider Redwork Designs With a Machine
Since I’ve already covered most of this above, these instructions are just a short rundown of how to machine embroider redwork.
1. Hoop or Float Fabric.
Select your stabilizer, mark your embroidery blank, and hoop or float your embroidery blank in the smallest possible hoop size.
2. Set Up The Machine.
Check your top and bottom thread colors, replace the needle, and set the hoop in your embroidery machine.
Load your design, and line up the center of the design with the marked center of the blank.
Be careful when resizing designs if the stitch count is not altered, as this will produce stitches too close or too far away for the desired effect.
Press start, and watch your embroidery machine stitch the redwork design. It shouldn’t take long at all to stitch an uncomplicated redwork design.
Pay attention to the quality of the first several stitches, and if needed, you can add an extra layer of stabilizer underneath the hoop.
4. Clean Up.
Remove the hoop from the machine, and trim loose threads and jump stitches.
Then, release the embroidered item from the hoop and carefully remove the stabilizer. Small areas may need tweezers or a sharp tool to loosen any residual tear-away stabilizer. (This is when you’ll realize how nice it is to have wash-away stabilizer on hand for certain designs.)
Tips for Redwork Embroidery Quilting
Uncomplicated and well-spaced redwork designs work great for quilts whether as a motif or as a method for quilting layers together.
Here are three ways to quilt with redwork designs.
1. Piece, Sandwich, Then Add Redwork When Quilting
In this first method, piece your quilt top using your preferred pattern.
Then, create and baste the quilt sandwich.
Next, hoop or float your sandwich, and embroider redwork motifs through the three layers. (Carefully consider your bobbin thread, as it will be visible on the back of the quilt when constructed using this method.)
The beauty of this method is if you organize designs cleverly, you won’t have to spend as much time quilting the rest of the top.
2. Block-By-Block Option
When creating block by block, hoop stabilizer and quilt fabric and embroider redwork designs directly onto the quilt blocks.
Then, piece embroidered fabric blocks together.
Add batting and backing, and quilt the layers together in your preferred method. I sometimes like to stitch in the ditch with monofilament thread to keep the layers together. Or, you can tie your quilt at block corners.
3. Quilting Block by Block
Now, if you create redwork embroidered blocks one by one (this is common with Anita Goodesign quilts, for example), this is a little more of “quilt-as-you-go” block.
In this scenario, hoop stabilizer, add your batting, and add base fabric. Then, embroider directly through all layers. Remove the fabric from the hoop, and cut to the desired block size plus seam allowance.
Piece all completed blocks together using a walking foot. Since you already added batting to each block during creation, all you need to do next is attach a backing, stitch in the ditch, and bind.
This is how I created my dollhouse embroidered quilt, which is where the image above is from!
Care Instructions for Redwork Embroidered Items
Since redwork embroidered items are created with red thread, you may need to worry about the colorfastness of said red thread.
While some threads are marketed as colorfast, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are under all laundering conditions.
Thus, test your red thread before stitching and laundering projects. For the best care suggestions, check the manufacturer’s website for your embroidery thread brand and consider pre-treating.
And that’s the wrap on how to machine embroider redwork embroidery designs.
What do you like to add redwork embroidery to? Any tips you want to share that you’ve discovered along your embroidery journey?