The epitome of the British sailors' artistic endeavors between 1840 and 1880 was found in their remarkable embroidered pictures of ships. These woolworks were created using a mixture of imagination and a strong knowledge of how ships were constructed, how they sailed, and what they looked like from a distance-all of this added with an ability to sew resulted in several thousand "woolies" created by several thousand unknown sailors.
Most sailors in these times needed to know how to sew. They were expected to sew their own clothes, fix buttons etc. and be able to repair the sails when they were ripped or torn. Often they would embroider their own jackets with designs and personal embellishments as long as their particular captain would allow it.
These pictures were created on a piece of stretched canvas usually approximately 16 by 24 inches. The sailor-artist would sketch out his intended Picture on the canvas which would be stretched and supported by a piece of wood on each of two sides which would enable the picture to be rolled up and stashed away easily when it was not being worked on. After the picture was finished and perhaps the ship had returned to port, a more permanent frame would be made.
Unfortunately, many woolworks were never framed with glass or never framed at all. This lack of attention left many totally exposed to the elements and to moths. Great woolworks, no matter how great they are, can be totally destroyed by a hungry moth. As long as the woolwork is properly framed and sealed in the back, there is no way the moths can get inside. Fortunately, in most cases of wool damage, the moth's presence is relegated to the edges and borders closest to the frame.
While sailors were somewhat expert at basic needleworking skills, it is interesting to note the completely different types of stitches that different sailors utilized. Many of the earlier woolworks tend to have a very time consuming chainstitch where each stitch seems to go into the stitch before and it is less than a quarter of an inch long. Later, the stitches become a much faster long and short stitch which could go for many inches at a time covering the canvas with a long stitch quickly and taking only a short stitch in the back before coming up in the front again. This would save the wool and make it much faster to work. When dealing with rigging work, the sailors would use long stitches--usually of a finer thread or even of silk thread or often thin twisted gold threads together. Often changes in color design dictated length and style of stitches. The sailor might change directions of the threads for different effects-for instance, while the background might be made up of long stitches running the length of the canvas, the sails would be made up of stitches running from top to bottom and flags might have stitches running in all directions leaving from a centerpoint.
Obviously, some sailors were more expert than others as evidenced in the elaborate details in some woolies versus those simple broadside portraits which make up the majority of woolworks. Most woolies were probably ship's portraits of that particular sailor's own ship. It is when the sailor went beyond that stage of just a ship's portrait that woolworks take on new dimensions and interest and one can really see just how talented many of these men were. They showed their skills when they included some of the following: scenes of faraway ports, sea battles, rough seas and ships in distress, forts and lighthouses, flags of other countries--often in a design with a center ship in a porthole device with flags surrounding, symbols of the royal family incorporated in the design as seen in the royal crown made of beadwork, the British motto under the coat of arms with a lion rampant and a white unicorn, a vine with roses, a ship with a gold threaded flag with the royal coat of arms signifying that a member of the royal family was aboard, symbols of wars fought such as the Crimean War showing cannons or piles or pyramids of cannon balls, whimsical visions of full suns in bright gold silken threads, a moon at night with small stars around, a skull and crossbone flagged pirate ship, house filled port towns, or foreign cities such as Canton in the distance or Whampoa Reach with walls and villages behind, or even Naples with Mt. Vesuvius erupting in the center in an array of bright red, yellow and orange threads evidencing hot molten lava rushing to a deep blue sea, a ship's steam spouting thick black wool smoke, theatre devices with curtains flanking a center design, a ship "fully dressed" with its array of multi-colored flags flying in celebration, the ship's name included either in stitch or on a silkwork or painted hatband from the sailor, the cannons of a warship made from pins or beads or nails, the portholes fitted with mica chips to reflect, a lifeboat off the side of a ship in a storm which is made out of thin strips of wood as salt crystals resembling hailstorms attack the ship, mountains with white sides showing glaciers of ice around Cape Horn, the use of beads and silkwork for highlights and details, tassels emphasizing a curtain effect, sails that were stuffed with cotton batting from behind to show their billowing in the wind, seas of multicolors showing their waves and gullies, patterned skies with heavier stitched clouds, shields in comers resembling flags from different countries, flowers in vines circling a center ship or shamrocks from Ireland or thistles from Scotland, and in later woolies, a photograph of the sailor surrounded by twisted threads forming a many colored rope effect, and once in a great while little cutouts of paper people or a dog. And not to be only a sewer, once in a great, great while the sailor would carve an exquisite frame to go with his creation. Often a carved frame would resemble the turns of a twisted rope or have carved out diamonds on a geometric type patterned frame.
On the whole, these woolworks were great examples of the British folk artist-sailors' ability to utilize long hours, days, and weeks on sailing ships into some kind of creative endeavor, which took little but allowed them a wonderful outlet for their obvious talents. These marvelous pictures were done out of pure pleasure, there was no profit motive and certainly no recognition, as out of hundreds I have known of only three which had information on the sailor on the reverse. These particular ships were done by brothers-one had jumped overboard in the 1850s to save someone who had fallen and ended up drowning himself. As a result his two pictures and one done by brother were returned to his family and perhaps is the only reason that we know anything about them at all.
It is surprising that American sailors did not involve themselves in similar pursuits but it seems their attentions were devoted more to scrimshaw while the British stuck to their woolies. Although once great while one may find an American ship woolwork there is no doubt that a British sailor did it. Most of the largest and earliest collections of woolworks were found in England. Now there are many in the States and they are becoming increasingly more popular as people learn more about them. Unfortunately, popularity breeds imitation so of course some industrious British are finding it profitable to create them even today. If anyone is wanting to learn about them or purchase them, please make sure that you get in touch with someone who is knowledgeable about them; otherwise insist on seeing the reverse side as no one has figured out how to fade the front and leave the bright unexposed colors on the reverse. Over time woolies will fade in the sunlight and will often have some moth damage along the edge, perhaps under the frame, during the times when it was not properly covered-the reverse colors are always far brighter than those in the front, in fact they are close to the original colors from having been protected from the light. Also the old canvasses are just that and the new ones being used are thinner with no sign of age discoloration and are often just a plain piece of cloth. All of these signs can be checked by seeing the backs so insist on doing so if you have any doubts at all. Sometimes when a woolie seems too good to be true it might be, but with some interest and willingness to learn about them one can soon see the differences and be able to recognize the real sailor's art.