Women at work provided inspiration for Degas. In addition to ballet dancers and cabaret singers, he also painted milliners and dressmakers, laundresses and ironers—such as the young woman here. Writer Edmond de Goncourt described a visit to Degas' studio when the artist showed him "washerwomen and still more washerwomen...." Degas was interested in their movements and postures, the patterns and rhythms of their work. Degas, de Goncourt continued, had gone about "speaking their language, explaining to us technically the downward pressing and circular strokes of the iron, etc...."
Laundresses also appeared as characters in newly popular realistic novels, which detailed the difficult lives of these women. They worked long, hot hours for low wages, and because they wore loose clothing and made deliveries to men's apartments, their morals were often questioned. Degas, however, seems not to have been interested in their social situation so much as in their characteristic gestures—in the line of his ironer's body as she leans into her work, in the soft curtain of color provided by the garments that hang around her, in the crisp shirt folded on the table.