Needle Exchange – Let’s Talk About Sex, Part Two

Latest posts by Penny Nickels

Hi Everybody! Welcome back for Part Two of “Let’s Talk About Sex!” If you haven’t read Part One, click HERE to get started.

Once again, I Solemnly Swear not to surprise you with NSFW images. We will see some nudes, some body parts, (G rated to PG) but nothing pornographic. Any link that is graphic will say NSFW right next to it. Also, I’ve barely scratched the surface investigating these artists. I could have easily written several more pages but I was scared of the word count. Please take over for me and check them out yourselves.

I think I did a fair job establishing a historical and world wide context for the use of sexual depictions in needlework in Part One, so let’s go forward and explore the current use of that imagery, starting with Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois photo by Robert Mapplethorpe

Louise was born in 1911 in Paris, France to parents who worked as tapestry restorers. She says her birth as an artist was helping to draw the missing and damaged pieces of tapestries for the weavers to follow. Although she works in many, many mediums and is probably best known for her Maman sculptures, she is also a renowned fiber artist.

Seven in Bed

“Two things count in one’s erotic life: dinner table and bed. The table where your parents made you suffer. And the bed where you lie with your husband, where your children were born and you will die. Essentially, since they are about the same size, they are the same object.”

As we begin to explore the vast body of Louise’s work, eroticism and sexuality is a theme we see over and over again. But in interviews, we find an artist full of ambivalence and paradoxes. One quote will have her saying, “I am not particularly aware of or interested in the erotic of my work, in spite of it’s supposed presence.” And then we find her saying, “The sculptures reveal a whole life based on eroticism; the sexual or the absence of sex is everything…”

When we deal with the erotic in needle work, some of the questions that come up over and over again are, “Are these people feminists? Are they bucking feminine traditions by using this form to render the controversial?”

Louise is just as difficult to pin down with those questions. “The feminists took me as a role model, as a mother. It bothers me. I am not interested in being a mother. I am still a girl trying to understand myself.” She also states,“I am a woman, so I don’t need to be a feminist.”

She was acutely aware of women’s roles in the art world. “… to men one is first and foremost a woman, even when, as a woman one is first and foremost an artist.” As well as explaining, “… the buying scene, was in the hands of women- women who had money.. The trustees… were not interested in a young woman coming from Paris. They were not flattered by her attention.” She continues, “They wanted male artists who could come alone and be their charming guests. Rothko could be very charming. It was a court.”

So where does her theme of sex fit in? She calls the emotions she explores “Pre-Gender”. When looking at her work, we see juxtapositions of male and female organs, sometimes stylized, sometime more obvious.

Fragile Goddess

Her piece, Fragile Goddess, is a reworking of Stone Age Venus figurines, however the breasts and neck become a phallic symbol resting atop a pregnant belly. Her use of the word “Fragile” refers to the quality of cloth in comparison to the long lasting stone the original Venus was carved out of.


She explains that this piece is a couple copulating seen through the eyes of a young girl. “Are they enjoying themselves? Is one killing the other? It refers to an age when I could not understand what they were doing.”

So, does Louise Bourgeois fit into the category of Feminists Artists or People Who Use Fiber to Explore the Feminine? Um, short answer… No? Maybe… A little? Other people who have researched her far more throughly than I have pointed out that it may be as simple as the Second Wave Feminist movement was not really part of her experience. We have to keep in mind, she was already in her mid-sixties when the Women’s Lib movement was well underway, even though that movement is largely responsible for “rediscovering” her. So it makes sense that she might not be quick to define herself as such. However, her work and statements are full of contradictions, so maybe her reluctance to be pinned down to movement, whether political, social, or artistic, is more of a reflection of that.

So who is a concrete example of a Feminist Artist Using Fiber to Explore the Feminine? I’m glad you asked. Judy Chicago. In 1974, Judy began working on The Dinner Party. Her intent was to create a monumental tribute to women’s achievements. It was finally completed in 1979 along with the help of over 400 volunteers.

Judy Chicago with The Dinner Party

Judy said, “I wanted to make a piece that was beyond judgement. For example, if you go and see the Sistine Chapel you don’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t like it.’ It’s irrelevant whether or not you like it or not. Whether it’s good or bad is irrelevant, it simply stands as a testament to human achievement… And so I longed to see that kind of achievement having been made by a woman.”

The Diner Party is an installation piece consisting of a triangular table that measures 48 feet on each side and features a place setting for 39 mythical and historically famous women. It also includes ceramic floor tiles that are painted with the names of 999 famous women. Each place is set on an embroidered table runner executed in a historically specific manner, as well as including a chalice, utensils, and a ceramic plate decorated in vulva “butterfly” images, both in 2D and 3D. Six woven banners greet the visitors as they enter the space. These tapestries reflect the colors and visual motifs found in the main work. While it is a mixed media piece, fiber arts are an integral part of the work which is why I’ve included it here.


Judy explains, “Needlework in all its forms was ‘women’s work’, and as long as I was compelled to deny my identity as a woman in my life and in my work, I never considered it as a medium for art-making. It would have been humiliating for me if a male artist or dealer discovered me sewing a button on my artist husband’s shirt or sitting at the embroidery machine or a loom. It would have confirmed the already taken-for-granted idea that my place in life was either supporting my husband’s aspirations or working in the ‘minor arts’.” With works like The Diner Party and the Birth Project, she has acknowledged needlework’s role in women’s lives, honored it and elevated it.

The work became a polarizing piece for viewers and critics alike. Many asked the same questions in 1979 that we ask today when confronted by needlework that challenges us. Is it Craft? Is it Art? “But if it wasn’t art, what was it? A highly trained artist conceived it, designed it, worked to create it, and directed its realization… It stirred strong passions, evoked arguments among highly trained professionals…”


Is it vulgar? Is it pornography? “… in 1990, the Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia voted to accept and purchase The Diner Party of their collection, which was to be housed in the Carnegie Library. Because Congress controls this University’s budget, however, congresspersons who deemed the piece ‘pornographic’ and ‘offensive’ debated the purchase in televised congressional proceeding and a controversy ensued questioning the ‘value system’ the artwork demonstrated. Ultimately, the purchase was denied.”

Mary Wollstonecraft

A few other feminists even took issue with the work, particularly the lack of other ethnicities and lesbians depicted. Some were uncomfortable with the inclusion of women such as Virginia Woolfe, who often voiced her frustration at the public’s interest in the gender of writers, and Georgia O’Keeffe, who consistently rejected that her work had any sexual meaning. The artist Maureen Mullarkey called it “‘… preachy and untrue to the women it claims to represent.’ She especially disagreed with the sentiment she labels ‘turn em upside down and they all look alike…’ an essentialist of women which does not respect the feminist cause.”

I suspect Judy welcomed the controversy, and even intended to provoke as a way of bringing attention to the whitewashing of women in history. On her website it’s stated, “It was a major challenge to academic and artistic tradition that the subject matter of women’s achievements was adequate for a monumental work of art.”

See Also
Hannah Mansfield 1st Place Open Textile Art Category (2). Image Credit Jutta Klee (Large)

Despite the debate that still rages on about The Diner Party, it is undeniably one of the most important examples of feminist art, as well as a clear example of needlework and textiles being elevated from their perceived position as craft into high art. (I’ve hardly begun to discuss the piece here due to space constraints. Please please explore it further. I really haven’t done it justice.

So where does that leave the men? Well, contemporary German artist Walter Bruno Brix is a fine example of men exploring sex with needlework. Now bear with me, all of his interviews are in German, so I’ve had to struggle through Google Translator and there is a good chance I’ve misinterpreted what he’s said. I apologize in advance.


Walter has been embroidering since childhood. In the early 90’s, he studied weaving, dying, and embroidery in Japan. He often explores Kimono and and other Japanese traditions in his work. His art constantly refers to lines, and the use of thread following/leading lines to create composition, almost like a blind contour. He says, “For me it’s interesting to see how the line can become content. That one can come to know something, if one goes further away. The course of the line however, interested me the most.”


I get the impression from his interviews that he’s not so interested in making a gender infused statement by using embroidery. Rather, he likes the line quality and movement that needlework allows. However, his use of handkerchiefs as a canvas for many of his erotic pieces seems to me to be an obvious reference to what men use hankies for in their “private time”. But I could be dead wrong. I don’t speak German.


I hate to quote him further because my translating capabilities are so poor, but I did glean from an interview that he likes that when his pieces are viewed up close, they have a child’s drawing quality to them. It’s only when viewed from a distance that the image comes into focus and surprises the viewer. Aside from exploring the erotic, sometimes very graphically, Walter also has a fascinating series of 12 famous loincloths, embroidered on cotton. Each one quotes and original loin-clothed figure from works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, Velasquez and many more. His work is well worth checking out.

So where are we with all this? Is sex/erotica/genitalia new in needlework? Absolutely not. Are the people who use this medium and imagery feminists or making a statement about the feminine? Sometimes, certainly not always. Are these artists a bunch of pervs? That’s mostly up to you to decide, but please look at the whole of their work before you do.


Penny Nickels is a printmaker that started playing with needles with tremendous effect. She and her husband, Johnny Murder, have been described as “The Bonnie and Clyde of Contemporary Embroidery” and you can discover the power of her creativity at her blog.

All quotes and photos referring to Louise Bourgeois are from Louise Bourgeois Edited by Frances Morris

All quotes and photos referring to Judy Chicago are from her website Through The Flower and The Brooklyn Museum website.

All quotes and photos referring to Walter Bruno Brix can be found on his website and Flickr page. (Some images NSFW)

Books referenced in Part One included Needlework as Art by Lady M. Alford, Embroidered Textiles by Sheila Paine, The Illustrated History Of Textiles by Madeleine Ginsburg, and Women’s Work: The First 20000 Years of Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. (You will be seeing these books a lot in my articles.)

I had intended to also look at works from Tracy Emin, Ghada Amer, and Orly Cogan, but I ran out of room. This piece is poorer for it. Please contact me for suggestions for future articles!

View Comments (12)
  • Love this! This is seriously like a page from my life last summer… I saw an exhibit of Louise Bourgeois’ work at the Centre Pompidou and while there, I picked up the book The Dinner Party that describes, in detail, how it was created and presented. Something that I found interesting regarding The Dinner Party is that not all of the plates do have vaginal representations. In fact, one of them is assigned to a black woman (I can’t recall who at this point) and it created a bit of a scene. Black women tended to protest The Dinner Party saying it didn’t reflect them because there were so few blacks included and also they didn’t get the vaginal depiction on the plate. They suggested that the artist was denying black women their sexuality by doing so. Chicago responded, I believe, simply by stating she didn’t intend to deny any of the women their sexuality in the presentation, at the time of construction it was very hard to find a lot of research and information on black people and particularly black women, and that there are several other women who didn’t get the representation on their plates. It’s amazing to me the amount of controversy her table has created!

  • Thanks guys!
    feminizzle- It’s weird, right? I know she said when she started the project, there was no women’s study programs and that sort of thing, but it’s hard to imagine that if you were doing the slightest bit of digging you wouldn’t come up with Ida B. Wells or even Josephine Baker. I know she’s got Sojourner Truth and Sacagawea and Hatshepsut… But her excuse does feel a bit disingenuous.
    What would really be cool is if she revisited the whole project, now.

  • Damn. I’m kind of speechless (again). I will saw that in my middle-age I have a hard time reading-reading long-ish things on the internet, but so far that’s not the case with Needle Exchange.

  • I swear, the next one won’t be nearly as long. Promise! I just felt like if I didn’t talk about these pieces in depth, It’d be pointless!

  • What is Feminism?
    “[Feminists are] just women who don’t want to be treated like shit.” Su, an Australian woman interviewed for the 1996 anthology DIY Feminism.

    This seems fair enough to me. Now, let us go further and here is what I mean when I speak of feminism:

    Feminism is a diverse collection of social theories, political movements, and moral philosophies. Some versions are critical of past and present social relations. Many focus on analyzing what they believe to be social constructions of gender and sexuality. Many focus on studying gender inequality and promoting womens’ rights, interests, and issues.

    Feminist theory aims to understand the nature of gender inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality. Feminism is also based on experiences of gender roles and relations. Feminist political activism commonly campaign on issues such as reproductive rights, violence within a domestic partnership, maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence. Themes explored in feminism include patriarchy, stereotyping, objectification, sexual objectification, and oppression.

    Modern feminist theory has been criticized as being predominantly, but not exclusively, associated with Western middle-class academia. Feminist activism, however, is a grass-roots movement that seeks to cross boundaries based on social class, race, culture, and religion. It is culturally specific and addresses issues relevant to the women of that society: for example female circumcision in Sudan, or the glass ceiling in developed economies. Some issues, such as rape, incest, and mothering, are universal.
    The situation seems to be that when women make erotic embroidery from a feminist perspective, they are often discussing the contradiction between fairness and patriarchy. This idea is best proved by the attacks Judy Chicago got over her Dinner Party and no one hardly ever complains over, say, Egon Schiele’s images. Remember it was men who denied the purchase of Chicago’s work for the University of the District of Columbia. I propose that the best thing we can all do is “we must help all women to be whomever and whatever they want to be: from chief executive officer to homemaker, from motorcyclist to philanthropist, from fighter pilot to missionary. There is not one definition of feminism; there is not one correct path women should take in life. Feminism today is about shattering the preconceived notions of women in society and the evolving roles that women are forced to play.”
    Now, one last interesting bit:
    This is from an interview between Marianne Schnall and Carol Gilligan:
    MS: You knew you were on to something.
    CG: Yeah! I published a book, “The Birth of Pleasure” saying, we’re witnessing the end game of patriarchy, and the contradiction between democracy and patriarchy is out in the open now – and boy, did the media go after me for that! Then my friends said, you must really be on to something. [laughs]

  • I’m a total art history nerd, and I can’t get enough of this stuff. OMG, Louise Bourgeois! Keep ’em coming!

  • I don’t normally read long posts either, but Penny yours was excellent reading. thanks for taking the time to write it and sharing it with us.

Scroll To Top