Rare 19th Century American Sailor’s Woolie, Second Half 19th Century, a sailor's folk art hand stitched wool yarn embroidered picture of a Brig under sail with reefed fore and main courses, two reefed head sails, flying a huge American Ensign off the spanker sail gaff, red pennant and command flag at the peaks; the white hull shows a single row of closed gun ports. The embroidery is simple, the ocean just an abstract hint. Mounted in a period oak frame with gilt filet.
The American flag has 14 stars, which would represent Vermont gaining statehood in 1791 (never an official American flag, we jumped from 13 to 15 in 1795); however, this woolie certainly does not date to the 18th Century, so the number of stars is probably just the sailor’s simplification when stitching. The American Navy commissioned Brigs between the 1790s and about 1861, with the greatest number in service in the 1840s. This woolie appears to be late 19th Century, though could possibly date back to the 1840s.
Image Measures: 6 in H x 9 in W
Frame Measures: 8-5/8 in H x 11-5/8 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.