Woolies are embroidered ship portraits, one of a number of handicrafts practiced by seamen to pass the long hours on sea voyages. Trained in sewing and other textile skills needed to repair sails and mend nets or clothing, some sailors applied these techniques as a recreational activity that produced aesthetic objects for their own use or to be given away as gifts. Although shipowners and captains often commissioned ship portraits from professional artists who specialized in this genre, sailors probably created their own sketches applied directly to the textiles available on board the ships on which they were posted. Yarns and canvas were also easily purchased at ports. Scrimshaw, model-building, knot-tying, and macramé are among the best known of the sailors’ crafts, but in recent years, woolies have gained increasing recognition and appreciation among maritime and folk art collectors.
This woolie depicts an unidentified three-masted sailing vessel that flies the American flag and a homecoming pennant. Under full sail, the ship approaches a fort that also flies an American flag and seems to emphasize an American context. While many of the surviving woolies seem to be the product of British seamen, a few examples such as this suggest that American sailors also practiced the craft. The setting may demonstrate the significance of homecoming to sailors who were away on voyages for months or even years.
Embroidered Sailor Pants
The donor of these unusual embroidered pants recorded that a sailor made them on a voyage from Rhode Island to the Pacific Ocean. They are made of several colored wools and striped cotton ticking. Sailors’ crafts such as scrimshaw, wood carving, macramé, and shell work were all shipboard activities that used available materials to fill the long hours and create gifts for loved ones and object for personal use. Sailors used sewing skills to repair sails and mend clothes and other shipboard textiles. Some sailors who were proficient with the needle employed embroidery to ornament garments, sea bags, and accessories with motifs and symbols important in a sailor’s life. Uniforms for seamen were not consistently regulated until the nineteenth century, and sailors were often expected to provide their own clothing. They sometimes embroidered uniforms or other garments that were to be used on shore leave.
The pants are constructed of coarse utilitarian fabrics, probably reused bedding—woolen blankets and striped cotton ticking. The embroidery is running stitch, worked in bold abstract patterns of palm leaves, flowers, stars, and human forms. It is possible that the motifs emulate tattoo patterns practiced by the indigenous people of the South Pacific region that the sailor observed while traveling. European and American sailors adopted tattooing as a form of personal adornment and symbolic expression in the late eighteenth century following the voyages of Captain Cook through the South Pacific. It became a cultural practice associated with sailors and soldiers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
SOURCE: Peabody Essex Museum