Sailors' Woolworks or Woolies

Sailors woolworks, commonly known as ‘woolies’ or string pictures, wooly (sic), ship pictures, embroidered ships, sewn ship pictures, or silkies, 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 or woolworks are often unsigned, the names of the artists are largely unknown.

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 of these embroidered ships possible.

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 sewn 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 unusual for men to have had this particular hobby for making woolwork or string pictures, it is actually not so strange; until the 1880’s, seamen had no standard uniform and had to provide and maintain 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. Some sailors even added bits of bone, metal, wood, glass, or some other such embellishment to decorate their woolwork ship portraits.

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 sewn ship pictures silk thread or thinly twisted gold threads were used. There have also been ship pictures in which the threads have been laboriously braided.

Although most historians agree that these needlework pictures were made by 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.

Woolies are rather rare, and in recent years, few extraordinary ones have surfaced. The cost of sailors' woolworks widely varies depending on the condition and quality; 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.

As with any form of art, sailors' woolworks are not immune to fakes. Genuine woolies are faded in the front and closer their original color in the back, where light and other elements have not reached; they also show rather irregular fading. In addition, loose threads and insect damage contribute to an overall aged look. Modern embroidered ships 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.

It is the folk qualities that make sailors’ woolies or woolworks so desirable. They display a wonderfully naïve charm that is often absent in marine paintings, yet at the same time offer a sophisticated, practiced look at the ships and elements central to the livelihoods of thousands of 19th century sailors.

Our inventory usually contains a generous selection of sailors woolworks, also known as ‘woolies’ or string pictures, wooly (sic), ship pictures, embroidered ships, sewn ship pictures, or silkies.

Our archives also contain some sailor's woolies we have handled in past years. We also prepared a catalogue of sailors' woolworks in 2008, some of which may still be available.

Also, read a more comprehensive discussion of woolies than that presented above in an article written by Paul Vandekar.