Sailors Woolworks: A Brief History
Sailors Woolworks, also referred to as Woolies, were popular from about 1830-1840 until around the outbreak of World War 1, when the advent of war, the widespread use of photography and the demise of sailing ships marked the end of the woolwork making tradition. It is thought they originated as a self-taught hobby and it may seem strange to some that these folk art pictures were made by sailors. But sailors did carry out many sewing and needle work tasks in their routine sea board duties, such as repairing sails and clothing whilst on board. It also must be borne in mind that until the 1880’s, seamen had no standard uniform and had to provide and maintain their own, so a rudimentary knowledge of sewing was necessary.
There were also many long periods of quiet time on-board ship; these were sailing ships and were at the mercy of the winds, and other folk crafts such as scrimshaw were common, so woolies should not be such a surprise. These were undoubtedly hard and cruel times in which to be a sailor, nevertheless as can be seen in woolworks, these ships were also an immense source of pride for many.
The vast majority of sailors’ woolwork pictures depict ships. Occasionally they are dated or the ship is named, with the rigging, number of guns and signal flags accurately described. Many depict a ship fully dressed with signal and national flags hung from the rigging, Some were placed in a roundel or porthole surrounded by flags of all nations, royal emblems, heraldic symbols and coats of arms. In some the ships are framed by stage curtains.
Flags of the British Isles and the Navy are seen in the main, which leads most historians to believe that British sailors executed the majority of woolworks. Flags and pennants and the general form of a ship can give clues:
- nationality or ownership in the case of a merchant ship
- yacht club affiliation and sometimes name and place of origin
- function and type of the ship
- a ship dressed with flags and pennants generally announced a special occasion such as the visit of a dignitary
- those flying the British Royal standard indicated a member of the royal family was aboard.
- a long streamer indicated that a ship was on her way home.
Genuine woolies are faded in an irregular way on the front, and are much closer to their original colour on the back. In addition, loose threads and insect damage contribute to an overall aged look.
Much of what is known is based on educated supposition, and as most examples fly British flags it is assumed that most were made by British sailors. Although some woollies show the flags of other nations, it is more likely a result of alliances between nations, rather than the works being done by foreign sailors. American woolworks are less common, and hence very highly prized, although they are much later than their British counterparts.
Recent research by curators at Compton Verney Museum of around 2011, sheds some important new light onto the work of the woolworking sailors:
- that rather than all being anonymous, some pieces of woolwork can be traced back to particular seamen, although as woolies or woolworks are often unsigned, the names of the artists are largely unknown.
- they also found that they were not necessarily true depictions of the vessels on which they served, but sometimes an amalgam of images.
- most wool pictures seem to have been made on embroiderers' canvas rather than sailcloth, this being too thick for delicate stitching.
- a variety of techniques and materials were used, few of them necessary to nautical life: running stitch, darning and chain stitch, in wool, silk threads, rolled and button threads, embellished with beads and sequins and, in the case of a work called Nelson, with cherubs copied from women's pattern-books. Far from raiding sail lockers, some sailors may have spent their shore leave (and wages) trawling through needlework shops!
Although most historians agree that these needlework pictures were made by active sailors, it is likely that a number were made by men no longer at sea. The largest and most elaborate sailors' woolworks would have been extremely time-consuming and difficult to store, and were probably done by retired seamen.
With thanks to, and for further in depth analysis of woolwork pictures please see "Woolies: The Art of the British Sailor” by Paul Vandekar"