Sailor's Woolworks

Sailor's woolwork (woollie) of H.M.S. Black Prince, c. 1860-1870. Sailor's woolwork (woollie) of H.M.S. Black Prince, c. 1860-1870.

Sailor's woolworks is a general term for decorative needlework pictures that in most cases show a specific ship or a generalised (sailing) ship. They have the nickname 'woolies'. Some of the sailor's woolworks are embroidered, others are made from appliqué cloth. Seamen produced such pictures from about the 1830's until the First World War (1914-1918).

Although most woolies were made by active seamen, it is likely that some were made by retired sailors. The peak period for the production of woolies was 1860-1880. They seem to have died out with the advent of steam, reducing the number of seamen required (and thus less men making them), and the advances made in photography in recording ships.

The making of woolies was one of several handicrafts, notably knot-tying, model making and scrimshaw, practiced by seamen to pass the long hours on sea voyages. Many sailors were trained in sewing so they could repair sails and mend nets or clothing, so decorative needlework was not regarded as a strange recreational activity for the men. Woolies mainly depict ships, but other motifs such as flags or landscapes were included. Some of the pictures also had a date and name of the vessel depicted, but they seldom include the name of the seaman who made the picture.

A wide variety of stitches were used for woolies, such as chain stitch, cross stitch, darning stitch and quilting techniques, notably trapunto. The earliest examples tend to be made with chain stitch, using woollen yarns (hence the nickname woolies), but sometimes cotton or silk was also used. Some sailors included bone, glass, metal or wood, in order to embellish their woolies.

See also: Trench art.


  • BANKS, Steven (1974). The Handicrafts of the Sailor, London: David & Charles, Ltd.
  • BEREZOSKI, Donald (2000). 'Offshore racer unravels anatomy of a woolie,' Connoisseur’s Quarterly, Spring, pp. 60- 63.
  • COOPER-HEWITT MUSEUM (1986). Embroidered Ship Portraits, Exhibition, June 3 – September 7.
  • JEROY, Judy (1994). 'Woolies: Embroidered ship portraits,' Needle Arts, September, p. 35.
  • (retrieved 12 May 2016).

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 22 June 2016). H.M.S. Black Prince was commissioned in 1862 and sold for scrap in 1923. For more information, click here.


Last modified on Wednesday, 15 March 2017 15:20