Woolwork pictures, or "woolies," as they are fondly referred to, were produced, for the most part, in England between about 1840 and 1900 by British sailors. They come in myriad sizes, condition, subject matters, and quality and represent the epitome of sailor folk art of this period. There appear to be several thousand extant woolwork pictures, and each one has its own character, charm, and history. For the purpose of this article I will refer only to those woolies that depict ships as their primary subject matter. In addition, because there is no proof that American soldiers ever created woolworks (although some of the ships depicted in woolies are flying the U.S. flag), I will focus exclusively on British sailors' woolworks. Below: Woolwork picture of HMS Marlborough. 30 by 40 inches.
Woolies received little attention from collectors for many years, perhaps because of their British heritage. They turned up primarily in England and were collected by a few dedicated individuals who saw in them things that the general public overlooked. Interest has grown markedly over the last 15 years, and today, thanks to a number of recent museum exhibitions and articles, they are sought after and more fully appreciated. There are now more extensive collections in America than in England, and new collectors who have come "on board" in the last 10 years have collections rivaling those of people who started collecting in the '60s.
The British sailors who crafted woolies were prolific and talented needleworkers. They learned their craft through their daily routines of repairing the ship's sails and taking care of their uniforms. They were also resourceful, making the most of their limited spare time and personal space by creating works of art that could be rolled up ,, and stored under their bunks when not being worked on. These sailors were knowledgeable about their ships and their surroundings and were skilled at drawing on canvas and then transforming a simple sketch into a vibrant, detailed, and interesting ship picture. Our appreciation for their accomplishments is magnified by the fact that these sailors were entirely self taught and created these works purely for the satisfaction they gave there was no profit motive at work here, and the overwhelming majority of woolies are unsigned.
Of the several thousand woolworks that have appeared on the market over the years, roughly 10 percent would be characterized as "best" quality. Another 10 percent fall obviously Into the "poor" category owing to moth damage, disrepair, or terrible design. This means that the majority of woolies fall somewhere In between. The very best quality woolies command very high prices and are often placed privately in top collections. Nevertheless, there are still hundreds of wonderful examples available for purchase.
Subject matter has a significant bearing on the value of a woolie. Most pictures are broadsides of a ship in an open sea, thus a picture that incorporates additional details and features is generally more valuable. Some of the features that lift a woolwork picture to the next level are scenes of foreign ports, ship battles, a ship in distress, crew members on deck or in lifeboats, forts, lighthouses, beadwork designs, fully dressed ships, the royal coat of arms, rising suns, moons with stars, pirate ships with skull and crossbones, named ships, cannons and guns of beads, salt crystals for hail, patterned skies, a sailor's farewells, multiple ships, flags of all the countries visited, cutouts of people and animals, puffed sails, three dimensional lifeboats attached, and recognizable locales such as Canton, the Cape of Good Horn, or Mt. Vesuvius. In later woolies the sailor artist sometimes incorporated photographs of himself. Size also affects a picture's value (a picture larger than the typical 16 by 24 inches is often more desirable), as do the condition of the picture, the brightness of its colors, and its design.
Advice About Buying
Beware of woolies that appear to be "bargains"; if a woolie seems very inexpensive, there's probably a good reason. New woolies, relatively inexpensive and appealing, are now being produced in London, but they are new and worth no more than you pay for them. If in doubt, ask to examine the back; new linen or thin canvas with brightly colored threads on both back and front indicate a newly minted picture. In period woolies, the back will always be brighter than the front (the front will have faded from exposure to light, and dust and dirt which have not reached the framed, covered back). The woolie at the left shows moth damage and fading. Look at enough period woolies and your eye will become trained to know the difference.
Finally, remember that your personal feelings toward the picture are the most important part of the buying process. Do not buy a woolie because it is cheaper than an oil painting or because your decorator insists that you "have the perfect spot" for it. Do buy a woolie because you love it --you will always find a place for it. Before buying your first woolie, do your homework and see as many as you can; the more woolies you look at, the more confident you will be about selecting the best one for your needs and pocketbook. Find a dealer who specializes in woolies and learn from them as much as you possibly can. And remember, the better picture you buy, the easier it will be to trade up or sell In the future.