British barque and steam pilot, c. 1890 @rovingcrafters.com
Sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s, the museum where I was working (and would work for 25 years) put up a small exhibition of sailors’ embroideries.1 There couldn’t have been more than 20 of them, if that, and they were probably up for less than three months. Given their almost incidental appearance in the galleries, I am surprised how regularly I think about them.
I don’t sail or read nautical histories; and nautical paintings (even Turner’s) have never held much interest. I certainly don’t romanticize life at sea. Captains Ahab and Queeg took care of that. Life aboard ship was hard, if not outright brutal, in the 18th- and 19th-centuries when these ship portraits were sewn. (As much as anything they should be valued as evidence that there was some down time for their crews.)
However, my interest in ‘woolies’ (a.k.a., ship portraits) has little to do with maritime labor or sailing lore. It has more to do with their material nature. (That and my love of the Atlantic, whose waves were the high points of summer shore trips.) Admittedly, the ships’ embroidered sails are impressive, and undoubtedly, the vessels themselves were the true subjects of these portraits. Nonetheless, it’s their oceans, like all oceans, that mesmerize.
Changing water into thread seems more miraculous than changing water to wine. The New Testament only asks us to increase the alcohol content of substance already liquid. The conversion of salt water to wool involves an alchemy of a different sort, one whose catalytic agents are repetition and scale. Together, they work the miracle of tricking the eye into feeling wool while seeing waves. Get up close and then stand back. You’ll see interlocking loops of yarn anchoring the ocean’s ebbs and flows within the shallowest of spaces, with stratified running stitches providing the depth. Each line of thread is a sounding from the fathoms of the sea. There is none of the pretense of realism that comes with perspective. Though perhaps these sailors stitched a different kind of realism, one in which dimensions give way to liberating expanses of sea and sky.2
It’s tempting to chalk up the satisfactions of these needle-worked scenes to what I think of as my somewhat regressive attraction to tightly confined spaces. For that matter, it wasn’t all that long ago that folk art of any type was thought to be the work of childlike adults, or when treasures such as 14th-century Sienese paintings were considered to be decorative, ergo primitive. Besides being a bigoted confusion of the graphic with the shallow, that diagnosis, if ever applied to the ships, sinks on other grounds. Instead of presenting a continuous surface as a painting does, these portraits are obviously fragmented. They belong in the company of mosaics. Both are made by masters of the incremental image. Both might also be described as pixelated.
After all, our optical nerves construct pictures-from-parts everytime we open a screen. However, the critical difference is that ships’ portraits, like their tesselated cousins, allow us to see the parts and the whole, engaging our eyes in a sophisticated game. We laypersons only notice pixels when the weather scrambles our satellite transmissions; on the other hand, type designers see them all the time as the building blocks of letterforms, while artists like David Young pry them apart using artificial intelligence.
In the interest of trying to understand the phenomenon’s attraction, I am conducting a small experiment. I’m attempting to sew some waves. With each halting movement of the needle and every tangled strand, a flattened seascape accrues dimension. Until now, I hadn’t thought of sewing as masonry, but laying stitches on rows of stitches is like building a wall, albeit of cloth. The sense of not just watching something grow, but making it grow – or better, allowing it to grow in concert with the properties of thread – is key to my fascination with textile processes generally. More specifically, I love the absurdity of embroidering a body of water that looks solid enough to walk on.
1. The museum is/was Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, then Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Smithsonian Institution. (The longer name was cumbersome and, had it been kept, the inevitable acronym would be CHMDADSI. Still in the age of branding shorthand, I’d applaud a revival of longer institutional monikers.) The exhibition featured ‘woolies’ from the collections of its director Lisa Taylor, whose secretary I was, and the fashion icon Bill Blass.
2. Every time I set foot on the sand, I sense I’m entering a protected and protective space. But it’s the leaving that confirms it. Crossing the boardwalk into the parking lot seems a bit like disembarking on land, but with none of the pleasures that sailors must have imagined, only a disappointing re-entry into the world.