Rare embroidered ship portraits make their way to New London's Custom House

A depiction of Boston Harbor with oversized American flags flying in the background. This is the only work in the 22-piece collection that features American flags and will remain in the museum’s permanent collection. The names, artists and dates of the woolies presented in the Custom House’s collection are unknown. (Courtesy of Custom House Maritime Museum)
A depiction of Boston Harbor with oversized American flags flying in the background. This is the only work in the 22-piece collection that features American flags and will remain in the museum’s permanent collection. The names, artists and dates of the woolies presented in the Custom House’s collection are unknown. (Courtesy of Custom House Maritime Museum)

Museums tend to acquire strange and often unexpected pieces to complement their collections. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum, for instance, owns a Falcon sarcophagus as well as hundreds of Victorian dolls. The treasures one could find in Norwich’s Slater Museum are countless, and the paintings found at Florence Griswold Museum tell a timeless story about a specific moment in Connecticut history. It’s no surprise, then, that New London’s Custom House Maritime Museum has some thought-provoking pieces of its own: antique scuba diving gear; a 1701 newspaper announcing the building of New London Harbor Light and the embalming of King George II; and large-scale replicas of the lighthouses that sprinkle our shorelines. Their most recent acquisition, a rare 22-piece collection of Victorian-era wool embroidered works created by various British sailors (an art form informally known as “woolies”), melds quite well with their permanent collection and presents an oft-unseen facet of maritime life from a mariner’s perspective.

The hobby of making woolies, the bulk of which were made throughout the 19th century until WWI and reaching a height in popularity from 1860 to 80, is believed to have occupied sailors while on intercontinental ship voyages that would often last for months. These sailors, as one would expect, often depicted images of their own ships (the details of which, ranging from the ship’s rigging to the number of gun portals, are rendered with exacting precision). In the Custom House’s collection, which is being showcased in the exhibit "Victorian Woolies: Sailor Stitchery and Other Pastimes," you’ll see those as well as scenes of ships docked in port with armadas on the horizon or, in one instance, the much-anticipated homecoming to a loved one. But besides images of maritime scenes, it’s the fine details found throughout these woolies that tell another story.

“I love that while looking at these, you can learn so much about this particular moment in history,” says Custom House executive director Susan Tamulevich, pointing to a night sky in one piece that has faded into gray. “This gray was once a vibrant purple. Using vibrant purples in their works became a trend during that time … Purple and mauve were really all the sensation then because they had never been able to fix that dye before.”

Tamulevich also explains that the specific materials used in a piece can help date when and where it was made. Vibrant yarns, in colors such as purple or mauve, for example, would suggest that a piece was likely created after the mid-1850s (artificial dyes were invented around this time), while silk threads might indicate Orient origins where silk embroidery was widespread. One such piece, which Tamulevich believes was made in the Orient, is included in the exhibit.

Oversized flags were also often stitched into woolies, helping to identify a ship’s place of origin as well as where it was sailing. Flags could also determine the function of a ship and the rank of the commanding officer on board. In this case, most of the flags depicted throughout the collection are British. In one of the works, Boston Harbor is shown with American flags (the only American-inspired work in the exhibit), and in another, a long streamer flag flying off the highest mast communicates that the ship was homebound.

“You can also get a sense for each sailor’s individual style,” Tamulevich says, pointing to the various forms that the ocean could take in each, as well as the range of each sailor’s skill levels. In one instance, a ship keeling over in one woolie looks incredibly realistic, while another may feel more elementary, with two-dimensional depictions. An artist may render stormy seas through the use of serrated white stitching, or a monotone blue could represent a calm sea. Beads, bone, metal or pieces of wood were also sometimes sewn into the works, adding personal creative flair.

Donated to the museum in February by New York native Charles Moss, this specific collection was curated throughout the 1960s and ’70s while Moss’ parents traveled throughout Europe, says Tamulevich. Moss’ collection was so prominent that, in 1986, he loaned many of these works to a Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum exhibition showcasing the woolies movement as "a tribute to tall ships," according to the show's description. The show was the first of its kind in the United States. Now, 22 pieces from that same collection are on view at the Custom House Museum until June, and six will be placed in the museum’s permanent collection.

“Most people know that sailors would take up scrimshaw or knot-making hobbies while out to sea, but not many people know about this particular art form. Even experienced sailors today, who know absolutely everything about sailing, have come into the museum and told me that they have never heard of this before,” says Tamulevich. “These works are really a wonder and also are very rare.”

It’s estimated that only a few thousand of these works were ever made — mainly because this particular art form was exclusively created among sailors of that era, Tamulevich says. With the advent of steamships, however, sailors were slowly put out of work. That, combined with growing popularity in photography, eventually extinguished woolies as a practiced art form.

“The sailors were quite facile with their hands. They sewed their own clothing and knew how to quickly make stitch repairs into sails,” Tamulevich says, explaining that sewing talents, combined with free time and a bit of creativity, made woolies a preferable pastime. “That they would make these (woolies), then, is really no surprise.”

m.biekert@theday.com

A woolie depicting a ship that ran by both steam and wind propulsion. The advent of the steamship was often depicted in sailor’s woolies. (Courtesy of Custom House Maritime Museum)
A woolie depicting a ship that ran by both steam and wind propulsion. The advent of the steamship was often depicted in sailor’s woolies. (Courtesy of Custom House Maritime Museum)

If you go

What: "Victorian Woolies: Sailors Stitchery and Other Pastimes"

When: Runs through June 10

Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London

Hours: 1-5 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.

Admission: $7; free for New London Maritime Society members, children age 14 and younger, U.S. Coast Guard cadets, active-duty military & their families

and

What: Stitch Your Own Woolie Workshop, a two-session workshop introducing the various tools and techniques used in the handcraft of embroidered maritime pictures

Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London

When: 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday May 5 & 12

Price: $55 per person, $50 for NLMS members, $40 for youth; includes all necessary supplies.

Contact: (860) 447-2501, www.nlmaritimesociety.org

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