Rare 19th Century American Sailor’s Woolie, from New England, circa 1850, with Three Masted Tern Schooner under furled sails, with American ensign flying astern and house flags and pennants aloft, moored in passage between two lighthouses (most likely Cape Elizabeth in Maine). The work is primitive and naive, and delightfully out of proportion with the twin lights in the foreground. Matted and mounted in a modern distressed veneer frame.
Image Measures: 13-1/2 in H x 21-1/2 in W
Frame Measures: 21 in H x 29 in W
Wool embroidered pictures of ships and flags and coats-of-arms are highly prized by collectors of nautical antiques, folk art, and other genera. These beautiful panels, somewhat naïve, somewhat impressionist, are colloquially referred to as sailor’s woolies. The romantic idea is that sailors would while away their leisure time below decks by weaving and hand tying these intricate yarn pictures. A nice story inspired by scrimshaw, but it is tenuous to imagine Jack Tar stocking up on skeins of bright colored yarns before weighing the anchor.
The truth is equally fascinating. When Britannia ruled the waves, and spent most of the 18th and 19th Centuries at war, they had many injured sailors laid up on shore. Before they ended up as “Chelsea Pensioners”, many spent lengthy times recovering in naval hospitals. These hospitals taught the invalid sailors this craft as physical and mental therapy. Some soldiers took up the pastime as well, so you will occasionally see woolies with regimental colors and references to The Raj and Empire. Consequently, almost all woolies are British and Naval in subject. There are occasionally other subjects, such as China Clippers, fishing schooners and very, very rarely a whale ship. It is extremely rare to see woolies by American sailors or other nationalities.