Saturday 18 July 2009

Stitching - the Oldest Profession?

We are accustomed now to consider needlework a chaste activity - and more, we are accustomed to believe that earlier generations considered needlework a guarded activity for young girls to keep them 'neat and tidy' - a euphemism still used in the UK for virginity. It might surprise us then to learn that the Dutch for stitching which is naaien has another, more carnal, meaning which I blush to write here, but which is linked to prostitution. While working on the Judith Hayle Samplers book with Edwina Ehrman, we included an image by Metsu, showing a young woman at her stitching pillow - to show the link between stitching pillow and the cartouche which is familiar to us as used on the Judith Hayle school of samplers. On the surface it can be interpreted as a quiet domestic interior, and yet I was perturbed by its incongruities, by what appear to be quite direct significations. What of the single, discarded, empty slipper which seems to invite a foot to fill it? The thimble lying on the floor? What of the maid holding a bucket with a lid which is arrowed so conspicuously to show it must be kept upright, and yet is being held carelessly at a tilt - perhaps risking loss of its precious content, as anticipated by the dog? And why is the maid lingering and making bold by uncovering the painting while her mistress reads the contents of the envelope she is holding (which bears the artist's name:Metsu)? Are we being asked to admire a chaste young woman whose husband is perhaps absent at sea, then, or a prostitute?


  1. Yes, what an intriguing painting. What I did notice is that the lady sits elevated visible through the window and I think the purpose is clear, she is on display. Even today in Holland in the red zone areas woman display themselves as "for sale" through windows. It is then most probable that she is a prostitute.

  2. Intersting article!
    Congrats for your blog is fantastic!

  3. I can agree with Alice. When my husband lived on the Continent in the early to mid 1960's, the women in the Amsterdam red light district were referred to as window dollies.

  4. Of course, everything is coloured by what we think or don't think of prostitutes today. But what did women, confined to home with no independent income source, do to survive when their men were away at sea, or off fighting? A friend who had researched the history of the Dutch Isle of Marken told me about the china dogs placed in windows by married women to signal their husband was away at sea - these dogs, a little like King Charles' spaniels, are nick-named Hoerhond.Then again, perhaps the women just wanted some light relief from all the tedious hemming and mending as opposed to money.....

  5. Hello, can a Dutch woman please comment on that ?
    the Dutch word for stitching is "vastnaaien ", which, I'm sorry to disappoint you , does not have any meaning that refers to s** .
    the word "naaien "is indeed a Dutch word, and in English it would mean "to sew ".
    it is a word that has more then 1 meaning, and one of them is indeed a not so nice word for s**.
    but it not nessecarely linked to prostitution.