Needle Exchange: Let’s Talk About Sex

The Bayeaux Tapestry

Needle Exchange with Penny Nickels

Needle Exchange is a place where we explore needlework around the world and throughout history, and sometimes prehistory, and then look at it’s modern counterpart. What qualifies me to write about this stuff? Almost nothing. I don’t have a degree, and I’m not a historian. But I think that works in our favor, because if I can find out about this stuff, anyone can. Also, I’m pretty sure I have the largest collection of textiles and textile history books on my street. So that helps.

So, I thought it might be interesting to start with examples of sex in traditional needlework. Gasp. Shock.

As many of you know, every Saturday Mr. X Stitch brings you NSFW pieces. That series has generated a lot of debate, and some ‘unfollowing’ of the blog. What I find most interesting about this genre of work, is that we seem to struggle to find a context for it. Sexual representations, whether graphic or oblique, can be easily found in all art forms throughout history. So why does there seem to be an issue with it in needlework? Are the stitchers bucking the perceived feminine nature of needlework? Are these artists a bunch of pervs? I think when we examine the history we can find obvious depictions of sex and genitalia in textiles, and then we’ll see it’s not so unusual. A lot of times there’s nothing feminine about it. In many traditions, women are not the only ones responsible for needlework.

Before we start, you have my Solemn Promise that I will not surprise you with any graphic images. I swear. PG and mostly G rated. I promise. Now that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Don’t make the mistake thinking that the outright graphic sex stuff is new. It’s not at all. I hope this encourages you to do your own research and check it out yourself. I’m just trying to save the good stuff for NSFW Saturday, and keep my posts appropriate for everyone.

To begin, I’d like to examine a piece that most of us are familiar with, either through our own textile pursuits, or our high school history classes. The Bayeaux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Contrary to its title, the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry at all. Said to have been completed around 1077, It’s an embroidered cloth that measures 70 meters long. It depicts the events of the Norman Conquest featuring William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings. Stitched by men and women, it’s embroidered with wool thread using couching and stem stitches. If you haven’t taken a look at it since high school, it’s filled with imagery that you’d expect. There’s fighting and feasting, crowning, ships, horses, clerics – Did I mention the fighting? What interests me, is that over time there has been some censorship in recreations of the tapestry.

Hmmm. Wow. So, if you’re trying to find info on the naked people, good luck. Everything I’ve found, (and no, not just on Wiki. I’m a book opener), seems to agree that it’s supposed to depict a scandal that was well known at the time, and probably a rape. The lack of information is extremely interesting to me. There is no shame in those depictions, the genitals are huge in both images. In the lone male, his penis is more detailed than his face. What does this say to me? That maybe yes, the meaning was well understood at the time of construction and it was nothing to get in a twist about. Or, perhaps when the piece was rediscovered at the beginning of the eighteenth century, those figures were intentionally left unexamined. As I stated previously, many reproductions have these people censored. Sad face.

Above: Cloth to be hung over an mirror opposite the marital bed for 40 days after the wedding – Tetouan, Morocco.

Okay, so lets talk about what we do know. Now, I’m not a fan of Freud, but in traditional textiles you will see certain symbols over and over again, and they tend to always mean the same thing. It doesn’t even matter what part of the world we’re exploring. That’s useful to us, because if you can recognize the symbols, you can learn a lot about the lifestyle. Common fertility and vulva symbols include certain flowers, fruits and shapes like triangles and lozenges. ‘Goddess’ motifs are often shown squatting, and different hand positions denotes anything from protection to rain fall. And let’s not forget the men, either. There’s a lot of that Bayeux business that’s common.

Above: Ritual towel  – Rushnyk, Russia.

Below: Marriage coif (note the triple goddess lozenge combination) – Bekalta, Tunisia.

Above: Note the squatting figures in the center as well at the large triangles that appear to be penetrated –  Konya,Turkey

Below: Pua’ cloth, Iban Ikat Weaving (Headhunter tribe) – Borneo.

See Also
A Matador wearing a Chaquetilla

Above: Pua’ cloth, Iban Ikat Weaving (Headhunter tribe). Note the engorged genitals and the men standing on top of headless people –  Borneo

Below: Grave gift sarong –  Sumba, Indonesia

And now we’ve come full circle with the ‘junk’. I hope that maybe next time we all see business in needlework, we can take a step back, understand its context and then judge it on its merits, not on its perceived novelty.

So meet me back here on the 17th of March when we’ll climb into my textile time machine and travel to 1974 for more pants parts! (First person to unravel that textile hint gets a prize.)


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.

View Comments (28)
  • Hi Penny,
    Welcome to the family and thanks for an awesome post. I’m going to be blushing at anything remotely lozenge shaped from hereon. 🙂

  • Love the post, Penny!!! Sexuality+history+textiles= a very happy me! Do you have any info on the ritual cloth from Russia?? I’m curious about what kind of rituals it was used for… I’m a fan of the Bayeux Tapestry, too, and I’ve *never* heard anything about/seen the naked forms! I’ll definitely be reading more about this…

  • Wow, I’m impressed with your post Penny! Very interesting! I am an historian (medieval history) and I really had no idea about those naked folks on the Bayeux tapestry. I’m wondering who or what they refer to!

  • Wonderful post; very educational! Now when I watch Antiques Roadshow and they discuss an old tapestry or rug with these shapes, I’ll just have to giggle. I wonder how many little old ladies have these old works in their house without knowing they’ve decorated their place with penises.

  • I just watched a slide show of the Bayeux Tapestry for a EGA presentation, but err, not any mention of this. How fascinating. I really enjoyed your post.

  • This is fascinating and I feel like I’ve been kept out of this loop my whole life. It’s maddening that I was duped by those that have censored. So glad that Penny is here researching and writing! YEY!

    PS Someone may have to work “lozenge” into her “dirty talk.”

  • Thank you so much guys! I’m so glad you all thought it was interesting!
    I love this stuff, and it’s hard for me to tell if other people are bored to tears about it. Yay!
    Feminizzle- That towel is called a “Rushnyk”. They are common in the Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. If you google it, you should be able to find a lot of info. The one above is for weddings. Here’s an interesting quote, “The power of the rushnyk comes from the sacred act of embroidery.”
    (That’s a whole other article that I’ve been itching to write)

  • WOW! Great first article and welcome to the family, Penny! I’ve always been a lover of the Bayeux as well and they never mentioned this in Textile Arts or Art History–fascinating!

  • I’m so glad everyone seems to be as surprised at the Bayeux Tapestry as I was! if you go here-
    And click on the tapestry icon on the top left of the page, you can scroll through the entire piece. Panel 30 and 39 has our pals. They’re not in the main field of the piece, but in the border below. I hope this helps put them into the context!

  • You raise a very interesting point about decency and sex in needlework. Some of my knee-jerk thoughts:

    Embroidery is traditionally (but not necessarily, honored gents) a female craft.

    The paintings you put on your blog were presumably painted by males trained in Fine Arts. There is a long tradition of male fine artists representing naked females; there is not a long tradition of female fine artists representing naked males.

    Females are not encouraged to “look at” males; in many societies this is considered a sexual advance, and therefore taboo. Painting/embroidering a dude’s junk involves looking at him. (I do not advocate literally embroidering a dude’s junk even if using clean needles and painkillers. Do not sue.)

    A line from the film “The Year of Living Dangerously”: “If it’s in focus it’s pornography; out of focus it’s art.”

    And, finally, what my mother would say: “Why would you want to spend so much time making that, of all things in the world?” My (former) religious tradition holds that art must glorify God, in the most literal sense of the phrase. “There are so many ugly things in the world, why would you want to do that?” Personally I don’t think sex or moist/dangly bits are ugly or gross, so I don’t see the problem with it.

    But I don’t know that I’d want my coworkers to catch me stitching them.

  • Hi Snarky!
    Thanks for opening up the discussion!
    Yes, the paintings I posted on my blog were done by men, however, I think that if I had gone with works by Suzanne Balivert and Gerda Wegener, they would typically get the same reception. That post was about exploring the viewers relationship to the work and, specifically why some mediums tend to get a pass more so than needlework, rather than the sex of the hands that made them.

    But you do bring up a good point. Our perspective as a viewer is inextricably bound up in our experience, (your quotes about your mother and your religious background are great examples of this at work). I think great art shines a light on that, and forces the viewer to address the “whys” of their reactions.

    And yes, you are correct bringing up the taboos pertaining to women viewing men and their genitals, however it’s just as accurate to say that in many cultures and in many time periods that is not an issue. I think that both sides of that coin are important to keep in mind when viewing these pieces. It helps unveil the symbols and the intent of the piece.

    About coworkers, Sure! But I also don’t see many artists dragging their gouges or easels to the office. 🙂

  • I loved this post so, so much. Incredibly interesting and insanely informative.

    Penny=my hero.

  • this article was really interesting, penny. when it comes to nsfw posts on mr. x stitch, i admit i have been a hater in the past. (though nowhere close to unsubscribing, good grief!). thank you for giving me some context for these more modern works. i feel enlightened. can’t wait to see what you write about next!

  • Thank you so much Laura! You have no idea how happy your comment has made me!

    I hope you all join me back here on the 17th when we explore some modern examples of sex in needlework. My article will be focused in particular on one piece from the 70’s. The discussion that that work provoked is very similar to the questions we ask today. “Is is Art? Is it Craft? Is it obscene?” As well as it being a strong example of what is undeniably feminist art.

    I understand that many people are put off by overtly sexual themes, and that’s totally valid. I really just hope these articles can help contextualize them, and maybe even allow us to say, “Eh. Boring. That’s been done forever. Show me something innovative!”

  • Wow, I did a huge paper in college on the Battle of Hastings and I didn’t know there were nudes in the Bayeux tapestry?! Thanks for this interesting article!

  • I get this comment” “Why would you want to spend so much time making that, of all things in the world?” for putting knit graffiti on trees LOL!

  • Enjoyed your post. Please keep the interesting stuff coming! You are making MrXStitch even better!

  • Really really interesting post. I like your take on the vaginal imagery (see also the ‘eye’ in lord of the rings lol) and it all comes as a bit of a surprise, though of course it shouldn’t. a central preoccupation of most people, of course it becomes integrated in needlework and craft.

    I didn’t realise that people had stopped following this blog due to the NSFW content! Honestly, I always love looking at it, even though it often makes me a little uncomfortable. but wouldn’t dream of not clicking through or, god forbid, unfavouriting/unbookmarking this awesome blog.

    thanks again.

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