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?!)
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.
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!