Woolies: The Art of the British Sailor
Paul Vandekar

        Sailors woolworks, commonly known as ‘woolies’, were produced from around 1840 until they fell out of fashion around World War I; many men passed the long hours on board, as well as kept their fingers nimble in the wind and cold, by sewing scenes of their ships and landscapes. As woolies are often unsigned, the names of the artists are largely unknown. On occasion, initials are added; the crew agreement dated 1875 for the HMS Lizzie, or Lissie, names Joseph Lewney, age 46, from the Isle of Man as one of its sailors. The HMS Lissie, formerly in the collection of Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc., was thus in all probability produced by Mr. Lewney.       
        Primarily, woolies depict ships, but many contain other elements, such as patriotic symbols, flags, or landscapes. Woolies often are dated, with the ship’s name incorporated into the picture; this information, combined with the aforementioned other elements, occasionally makes identification possible.  Names changed with each new owner and commonly, when an older ship was destroyed and a new one built, it was given the same name as its predecessor. In the late 19th century, many vessels had their appearances modified by paint or steam conversion. These factors add a great degree of difficulty to the identification process but also documented an important transitional period in shipbuilding. 
        The HMS Lissie is only one of many thousands of British, and less commonly, American woolworks that have become highly collectible in recent years. The majority of American woolies, however, are much later than their British counterparts.
        The naiveté is what makes woolies most charming; while some are so well-executed they are excellent foils to marine paintings, many are quite simple and straightforward. Both varieties offer personality and individuality of a degree that paintings simply cannot duplicate.  Most often, they were portraits of the sailor’s vessel, made as a memoir of his voyage or as a gift to a loved one.
        While it is regarded as uncharacteristic for men to have had this particular pastime, it is actually not so strange; until the 1880’s, seamen had no standard uniform and had to provide their own. Another task they faced was repair of the sails- coupled with the need to mend their own clothing, the sailors had to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sewing.
        A great variety of stitches were used, such as the cross stitch, chain stitch, darning and the quilting technique called trapunto. The earliest existing examples of woolies date from the 1830s, and demonstrate the use of a chain stitch – each stitch seems to go into the one before and is less than a quarter of an inch long.  An adaptation of this stitch is the long stitch, used in woolies after 1840; it is a long stitch that leaves little thread on the back, saves wool and makes for much faster sewing.  Sailors mainly used wool thread; hence the name, but cotton and silk were used when available. A work recently held by Mr. Vandekar is an excellent example of the latter- in addition to being an extremely rare night scene, it is executed in silk.Rare Silkwork of a Night Scene In all probability, this was done on the return voyage from China or other parts east. Some sailors even added bits of bone, metal, wood, glass, or some other such embellishment to decorate their work. 
        There is little contemporary literature referring to woolies, and therefore, much of what is known is based on hypothetical supposition.  As most examples fly British flags, historians believe that British sailors executed the majority of woolworks. Although some woolies 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.
        There are several details to which meticulous attention has been paid: rigging, number of guns, and signal flags.  To create the rigging, they mainly used long stitches with fine cotton or linen threads.  In some unusual woolies silk thread or thinly twisted gold threads were used. There have also been examples in which the threads have been laboriously braided.
        Although most historians agree that woolies were made by sailors, it is likely that a number were made by men no longer at sea. The largest and most elaborate would have been extremely time-consuming and difficult to store, and were probably done by retired seamen.
        Later in the century, patriotism mingled with a sailors’ nostalgia for his ship.  Woolies sometimes depict a ship fully dressed with signal and national flags hung from the rigging.  Ships were placed in a roundel or porthole device surrounded by flags of all nations, royal emblems, heraldic symbols, coats of arms, photographs, flowers and allegorical figures. Of course, flags of the British Isles and the Navy were used foremost.  In some woolies, the ships are framed by elaborately stitched stage curtains. These flags and pennants are important in providing information.  They show 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.
        The popularity of the craft peaked between 1860 and 1880; the advent and increasingly common use of steam engines to power the ships drastically reduced the dependency on a large crew to keep things running smoothly. Another factor that had a major impact was the introduction and further widespread use of photography, which gave sailors a much less time-consuming way to immortalize their trips. While some photographs were incorporated into woolies, most viewed them as a replacement, rather than a supplement.
        Woolies are rather rare, and in recent years, few extraordinary ones have surfaced. Cost widely varies; in August 2005, an American sailor's woolwork of an American ship near a lighthouse beneath an eagle, with a vivid stars and stripes shield and four flags, fetched a record price at $71,920. (Antiques and the Arts Story Archive 2005. “Marine & China Trade Blockbuster For Bourgeault”. By Frances McQueeney-Jones Mascolo. http://www.antiquesandthearts.com/auctionwatch.asp?s=auctionwatch-2005-09-20-11-34-11p1.htm&td=auctionwatch)
        As with any form of art, woolworks are not immune to fraud.  Fraudulent needlework often is made with old or distressed frames, nails, linens and paper, yet uses modern wool.  Genuine woolworks are faded in the front and nearer their original color in the back, where light and other elements have not reached; they also display rather irregular fading. In addition, loose threads and insect damage contribute to an overall aged look. Modern woolworks do not have this color differential, as usually the wool has been treated or they have used subdued colors in an attempt to imitate age.  In addition, the technical aspects of the ship are incorrect; proportions, number of guns, and other such areas can easily separate a reproduction from an original, if one is at all familiar with ships. Often, the overall appearance is much more tight and tidy than an authentic work- this is not to say that fantastic, well-detailed, tightly-stitched woolies do not turn up, because they do- but there is a folk art quality that is lost in the modern pieces.
        It is, in fact, the folk qualities that make sailors’ woolworks so desirable. They display a wonderfully naïve charm that is often missing in marine paintings, yet at the same time offer a sophisticated, practiced look at the vessels and elements central to the livelihoods of thousands of 19th century men.    

Bibliography Consultant: Paul R. Vandekar of Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge, Inc.  
“Stitches in Time Portray Ships of the Line,” Antiques Weekly, August 27, 1993.
Banks, Steven.  The Handicrafts of the Sailor. London: David & Charles, Ltd., 1974.
Berezoski, Donald. “Offshore Racer Unravels Anatomy of a Woolie.” Connoisseur’s Quarterly, Spring 2000, 60- 63.
Cooper-Hewitt Museum: “Embroidered Ship Portraits” Exhibition, June 3 – September 7, 1986.
Crowley, Bridget. “Unlikely Art of Jolly Jack Tar.” Country Life, November 12, 1992, 46-47.
Jeroy, Judy. ‘Woolies: Embroidered Ship Portraits.” Needle Arts, September 1994, 35.

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