19th Century Trinity House Sailor’s Woolie

19th Century Trinity House Sailor’s Woolie


19th Century Trinity House Sailor’s Woolwork Embroidery, British, circa 1870

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19th Century Trinity House Sailor’s Woolwork Embroidery, British, circa 1870, a sailor’s folk art hand stitched wool yarn embroidered picture of a schooner under full sail, flying a Number Four pennant on the Main Topmast, and the Red Ensign on the Main Topsail Gaff; the hugely oversized schooner is sailing past a headland with diminutive lighthouse and keeper’s cottage, also flying a Number Four Pennant; mounted in a period Bird’s Eye Maple frame with lemon gilt filet. The Red Ensign was used by British merchant ships, and as a courtesy flag by foreign vessels visiting in British waters. It was also used with the corner field “defaced” with an emblem (as seen here) as the house flag for Trinity House, the British corporation in command of lighthouses in the United Kingdom; the schooner and light both flying the same pennant indicates that this was the Trinity House Tender assigned to servicing this particular lighthouse.

A great piece of sailor’s folk art, having both the exactly detailed and correct rigging and the completely naive disregard of size and perspective. The wool shows a small amount of old damage, likely from an antique moth (all too common with woolies). Overall in great shape. The colors are strong, the scene peaceful, and in a bold large size to command a wall.

Image Measures: 17-1/4 in H x 24-1/2 in W
Frame Measures: 22-1/4 in H x 29-3/8 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.


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