Freesearch Friday: The Curious History of Nautical Embroidery

Flowers, fruit baskets, doe-eyed animals, cross stitched literary verses, decorative alphabets, the British Royal Navy’s 120 gun HMS Trafalgar?  Above, a wooly depicting the convict transport ship Mermaid, from the collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum. 

In the spirit of our Experimental Embroidery class, today I want to discuss a curious point in needlework history: the Woolie.

This Woolie, dated 1880, commemorates the 1878 sinking of the H.M.S. Eurydice. Image courtesy of Earle D. Vandekar.

Woolies, sometimes referenced as Woolworks, encompass a whimsical group of artworks produced by British Royal Navy sailors between the mid 1800s through the First World War. These marvels of needlepoint range in their execution from depicting general, and somewhat abstracted, vignettes of sailing ships, to highly articulated canvases of particular vessels; complete with

flags, names, and maker dates. Often, highly decorative borders convey futher details about the maker’s biography, despite the rarity of these works bearing the artist’s name.

Why embroidery, you may ask? For those at sea, these stitched seascapes were an extension of sewing skills fundemental to the trade. Images were stitched on scrap sailcloth using wool thread, cheaply obtained at port, and built upon utilitarian mending stitches needed for repair.

Additionally, these compositions were works of pride; tokens of patriotism and a demonstration of personal skill. Personal value is imbedded in each stitch, from populous common straight stitches to elaborate chainstitches and knot-work. And while the majority of these objects were rendered in their namesake wool, inclusions of bone, beads, silk thread, and satin ribbon were employed as unique embellishment.

Not only were these crafts a way to pass long hours, but thankfully remain as remarkable historical documents.

Images Ahoy!

19th century Woolie with an elaborate porthole framing device. image courtesy of Invaluable.

Enjoy an expedition of your own through the following resources:

Stitches of History: Art of the British Sailor via Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine

Paul Vankekar’s dazzling gallery via Pinterest

An American sailor’s embroidery via the National Museum of American History

Woolwork Picture of a Steamship via the Australian National Maritime Museum

Ready to set sail on your own? Join us in this week’s Bunker Crafts blog for an embroidery tutorial to get you started. I’m thinking of commemorating a battle-worn 2006 Subaru.


What craft would you like to try out? Any research you’ve been wanting to do, but haven’t had the time? Let me Freesearch for you!

Let me know!

Until next Freesearch Friday,

Anne Luben