Woolies – Woolwork Picture of Ship

Woolwork Picture of a Three-masted Vessel, England, late 19th century, the square-rigged vessel flying a Union Jack

p4A ItemID F7995429
Sailor's Woolwork Ship Picture, English, 19th century. A wool embroidery, or "woolie," of a sailing ship

p4A ItemID F7990261
Sailor‘s Woolwork, British, late 19th century, British ship with three masts

p4A ItemID F7983279
Victorian Woolwork Wreath, 19th c., worked in multi‑colored threads with flowers and foliage

p4A ItemID F7968509


A woolwork picture of a ship – usually a sailing ship – is affectionately called a woolie. If it depicts anything else – a house, dog, flower – it is a woolwork picture. Woolies were the creation of British sailors who got caught up in the embroidery fad that infatuated their wives and daughters in the mid-to late-Victorian era.

The woolwork fad (also called Berlin work for the city where it began) and the era of woolies roughly corresponded – 1830 to 1880. The demise of the fad at sea came with the rise of photography and the shift from wind power to steam. Some retired sailors continued their woolwork on land and they may be responsible for some of the era’s 3′ wide examples. Woolies from as late as 1920, possibly created by retired sailors, were not meant to deceive and are generally not considered fakes.

The thread used by British sailors was most likely wool brought from home. The canvas used as a ground was probably sail remnants. Some woolies were embroidered with silk thread, possibly purchased at port.

So called “American woolies” usually command a premium at auction because they are so rare. These woolies are American only because they depict an American ship with American flags or an American scene. Current thinking is that the embroiderers were British sailors who worked for American companies from 1870 to 1890.

Higher prices are also correlated with details such as the ship’s name, date, recognizable locations, battles, multiple ships, multiple flags, people in the scene, puffy clouds, beads and crystals.

At auction even elaborate woolies sell for less than $2,000, a fraction of the retail market. The auction record for a woolie was set in 2005. That woolie depicting an American ship near a lighthouse brought $71,920.

Fake woolies from the 1950′s up to the present day have been found. Many have a cotton, not canvas, backing with unfaded thread on the front and back of the piece. The ships selected for fakes are highly decorative, appealing and dramatic. Unlike real woolies, fakes are frequently signed.

Reference note by p4A.com Contributing Editor Pete Prunkl.

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