article from The Independent probably should not have gotten my knickers in a bunch. But it did.
Entitled “Wool Work: A Sailor’s Art”, the article is ostensibly an advertisement for a show of embroideries done by 19th century Royal Navy seamen. The exhibit runs through June at what the article calls “… the stately home-cum-gallery, Compton Verney.” The author, however, uses language that implies an “awe shucks; who’d ‘a thunk” kind of attitude toward a long standing art form which helped sailors relax – and remain human – at sea.
Wool work, as it was known among the men who created it, would otherwise be called embroidery. Using muslins and embroidery cloth (not sail cloth – to the mild dismay of The Independent reporter), the sailors would paint pictures with needle and thread. Generally they stuck to depicting what they knew – ships – but there were many instances of allegories (as in this piece from the exhibit entitled “Nelson”) and other bucolic scenes that gave the sailors a chance to envision pretty shepherdesses and milkmaids.
Of course anyone who has experienced a life at sea knows the stress of being constantly at the ready and potentially in harm’s way. While it is common wisdom to believe that sailors lulled themselves into a half-life of acceptance of their anxiety and hardship with unhealthy doses of daily grog, art forms like wool work prove that this is a misconception. At least some of the sailors aboard any given man-of-war found solace in a homey “woman’s pursuit”, relaxing with the rhythm of the needle and doubtless sharing insights and thread with brothers who did the same. Far from being amusing or unusual, I find it poignant to imagine those, as the article calls them, “… large, brown, calloused…” hands working their magic over embroidery cloth and floss.
Then, too, there were doubtless men and boys who practiced wool work for the sake of the art itself. To create something colorful and beautiful, and to be able to appreciate it and share it with friends, was probably a small triumph. To some degree a man at sea had lost more than gained freedom. His days were regulated by authority and bells and he never knew how stern the next set of officers might be. To have just a little control was probably a blessing most of us can no longer understand. Sacrificing a few hours that could have been occupied with the blessed sleep to the creation of beauty would have been not only a personal choice, but a personal triumph. How fortunate are we, the descendants of these men, to have a small glimpse of their talents still available to us today.
Header: HMS Serapis embroidered circa 1850