Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Needle Aweigh!


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Have you ever heard of “woolies”?

Woolies are embroidered images of ships worked by sailors who were usually on those ships. Although they’re mostly a British thing, it’s not unusual to find woolies worked by sailors from other countries as well.

My interest in woolies was piqued some 15-ish years ago, when visiting DC. There, I saw the sailor’s embroidery that’s on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Unlike woolies, this piece is worked on linen with silk, and it features, along with a ship, many land-based scenes memorializing the Civil War. On the bottom of it, the sailor embroidered “Worked at Sea.”

Contemplating that piece, I thought, “Embroidery by sailors made sense – it would be a great way to occupy time. And surely this isn’t the only piece of embroidery ever done by a sailor!

And that thought led me to…

woolies. (Don’t you just love the name?!)

Woolies: Embroidered Ships by Sailors at Sea

Most woolies, like the wooly above which sold in 2012 and can be found featured on the Invaluable auction site, were worked in wool (hence the name) on scraps of duck cloth or sail cloth.

They were popular from the first half of the 1800’s (about 1830-1840) up to World War I.

The wool-working sailor often inked a drawing of his ship onto sailcloth, and then proceeded to embroider it free-style, adding details and embellishments to the sea, the scenery, the sky, and so forth. The favored stitches seem to be long stitch, straight stitch, split stitch, some chain stitch, and cross stitch.

Woolies, for the most part, have a folky look to them, which makes them ever-so-charming! Even so, some of the depictions of wave, sea, sky, and ship are very creative and, from sailor to sailor, are always different.

In some woolies, the sea is flat; in others, it is wild with waves. In some woolies, the sky is blank; in others, full of birds, sunbursts, signal flags. Every wooly is unique, alive with each stitching sailor’s own personality and perspective.

I just love woolies! I wish there were a Wooly Museum somewhere. I’d be an avid patron!

If you’d like to have some fun exploring woolies yourself, here are some links to some good articles and images:

Sailors’ Woolworks or Woolies on the Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc website. – This article has some good links in it. While you’re there, check out this signed sailor’s wooly of three ships in a harbor.

Woolies: The Art of the British Sailor by Paul Vandekar

Stitches of History: Art of the British Sailor by Katherine Manley with Paul Vandekar

Woolies: Sailors’ Embroidered Folk Art (PDF) from Antiques and the Arts Weekly, Newtown, Connecticut, January, 2000.

Pinterest Boards on the Subject:
Sailors Woolies – Sue Knight
Sailors’ Woolwork Pictures – Woolies – Paul Vandekar

For those of you enjoying a three day weekend, I hope your Memorial Day is a lovely one! Here in Kansas, we’re soggy, but happy for lots of rain over the last few days!

Now, off to work!

Enjoy the day!


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(21) Comments

  1. Most people who do not craft do not realize that embroidery, sewing, etc prior to WW2 was not 100% “womens” work. Many tailors were men (Tailor of Gloucester, no more twist! 🙂 ) and women often only did things for the household. Now (sadly) they consider themselves to “”macho”” for “”girly”” stuff like that.

  2. Oh, what a pleasant post. Having read Patrick O’Brian’s entire Aubrey-Maturin series a couple years ago, sea-faring tidbits of a certain epoch hold a special fascination for me.

    1. Ahh yes! I’ve read them. And the C. S. Forester Horatio Hornblower books are a favorite, too. The Hornblower movies with Ioan Gruffudd are wonderful…!

  3. Hi Mary – I thought you might like to know about the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I went to a wonderful symposium there in 2008 that featured work done by sailors on ships. Woolies, scrimshaw and other needlework was on display and there were many samplers on loan from the local people whose ancestors stitched them. It was a fantastic exhibit and some of those things (definitely the scrimshaw) might be on permanent display. If you have become interested – I suggest you seek out this museum – they have a nice website and perhaps their gift shop might even still have some books on the subject. Loved your article today – it brought back wonderful memories of being in New Bedford and seeing the amazing work of sailors on ships.

  4. I had read about woolies when Piecework magazine did an article on them a while back. Thanks for the reminder about them and the links.

  5. This is a GREAT article Mrs. Corbet! I have two nephews ages 4 and 2 and they’ve just started to be curious about what ‘aunt Krissy’ does with that needle. I think they’re a bit too young to deal with sharp objects yet, but their parents have some VERY antiquated notions about little boy activities. When they get older and if they still want me to teach them I’ll show this article to mom and dad!

    1. I like the way you think. I taught all my kids to stitch at least a little. I still have my youngest son’s one and only project he made for my husband. At least they all know how to handle needle and thread.

      My husband retired a few years ago, was wondering why I was so fascinated with needlework. I gave him a small project to stitch and now he stitches (cross stitch) more than I do. And the projects he chooses are large and complex. He’s always been detail oriented so this works out just great for him. Stitching is for anyone who wants to create.

  6. Dear Mary

    How interesting that men embroidered as well in the 19 and early 20 century. It would be interesting to see the embroidered ships close up in detail and I love the name woolies. I will now browse through the websites that you have suggested and look at the different embroidered pieces done by woolies. Thanks for sharing this interesting information with us.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  7. I love nautical folk art, especially these woolies. They speak of a time and a confidence in needlework, like antique quilts, when it wasn’t about following ‘the rules’ so much as it was using fabric and thread to express yourself.

    As for men and the needle, my great grandfather served in WW1 and was an avid knitter. My grandmother said that whenever heels or toes had to be darned, he was the one to do them; her mother said she’d never be able to do it as neatly or invisibly as he did.

  8. If I weren’t happily married I’d have to find some stitching sailor. Stitching would make any sailor man sexy – eye patch and all. (provided they had good teeth!) LOL

  9. I’ve learned something new today Mary – thank you. I’ve seen pictures of this type of work, but didn’t realize it had been done by sailors OR that it had a name.

  10. Mary you are such a source of inspiration. Thanks for sharing to broaden our horizons. The woollies story, how interesting.

  11. I love this-and it illustrates what I love about this blog. I virtually always learn something interesting.

  12. Hi Mary,
    this is a bit off topic but… what’s happened to the mission rose? I loved that embroidery but like many others felt disappointed with the framing.. any updates?
    By the way, the secret garden book lady should really give you a commission on sales – I bought the book of course… and when you spoke of the sale at Hedgehog handworks, well I bought more supplies and tools. It’s a bit of an addiction this stitching stuff isn’t it?!

    1. Hi, Patti – I’m having it reframed! 🙂

      Well, if you buy your books through the links on Needle ‘n Thread to Amazon, I do actually get a tiny kickback on sales, which is explained at the top of my “books” page. Every tiny bit helps!

      Yes, it is a little bit of an addiction! But just a little bit……! :-/

  13. Thanks for yet another new thing, Mary. You are truly incredible at finding all this wonderful stuff for our edification. As usual, this is fascinating.

    On the subject of the word ‘woollies’ (Australian spelling): when I was a kid, our cardigans and jumpers, aka sweaters, were called woollies. My mother would say, put on a woolly if you’re going outside, it’s cold today, or some such because in those days there was only wool for knitting, no synthetics. Am I giving away the fact that I am ancient???

  14. This brings back memories for me as my Father stitched during the second World War, especially on the hospital ship on the way home (England to New Zealand).

    He stitched a parrot on canvas, which was framed into a fire screen, and started a cottage garden scene, which unfortunately the moths got to before he finished.

    Both projects were free hand designs, and often he would blend two strands of wool together to get the colour he wanted, as wool was in short supply, and he scrounged what he could where he could, including sock mending wool!


  15. When my son was in the Navy, he took up knitting to occupy his time. Self-taught, he enjoyed seeking out new yarn-shops in various ports.

    He’s been out of the Navy for several years, but is still knitting! 🙂

  16. Hello, There is currently an exhibit of Woolies at the Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center in Dowel, Maryland. Dowel is on Solomons Island in Southern Maryland. It will be there until Jan. 25, 2015.


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