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Woolies in August

August has traditionally been a month for Americana auctions along the East Coast. Stair is currently on preview for our August 5 Americana sale, featuring an array of furniture, folk art and decorations spanning the 18th century through the late 19th century Aesthetic Movement. An exciting highlight of the sale is a group of over twenty English woolwork pictures, or “woolies,” from a New England Estate.

Woolies are embroidered pictures by British sailors, made circa 1830 through World War I that depict important ships, sailing expeditions, famous sea battles, or patriotic symbols such as flags. Sailors were self-taught and used the materials to which they had access onboard to create these charming folk art works. These materials included wool thread in bright blues, reds, and greens – the use of wool thread giving rise to the nickname “woolies” – although sometimes pearl cotton or silk threads were used. The pictures were usually embroidered on to a heavy linen or cotton fabric called duck, which was then stretched on to frames made of excess wood found onboard. On more complex woolies, embellishments such as pieces of glass, bone, metal, or even sequins were used to highlight details of the ships depicted.

It was natural that sailors picked up this activity to record their experiences, as dexterity with a needle and thread was a necessity for these men. In the 19th century, sailors had no official uniform and were required to make and mend their own clothing prior to setting sail. These skills were also required for regular maintenance of the many sails on the large vessels that might tear in high winds at sea.

It is thought that sailors used their spare time on board to create these pictures, or would make them on land after returning home from a voyage to keep as a memento of their trip. In a time before commercial souvenirs were mass produced or photographs were widely circulated, these woolworks were one of the few ways brave sailors could highlight their accomplishments and record what they witnessed out at sea for their families. A great example of this is lot 156 in the sale, a woolwork made for the American market, representing the U.S.F.-S. Wisconsin. Across the top in large letters is embroidered: “In Remembrance of my Cruise/in/China Japan/and/Philippine Islands.” The center includes a photograph of the sailor, surrounded by national flags. It is likely this example was made upon the sailor’s return home. These works serve as an excellent time capsule and illustrate an important period in maritime history. This is the first time we have had the pleasure to feature such a large and diverse collection of these delightful woolwork pictures.

Time & Location

Thursday, August 5 at 11am

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