Needle Exchange: Let’s Talk About Sex

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.

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

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.

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

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.

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

Above: Ritual towel  – Rushnyk, Russia.

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

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

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.

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

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

Needle Exchange: Let's Talk About Sex

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.