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Essays / February 4, 2019

Touch It

When I stopped making clothes, I started exploring textiles in a different way, but I never lost my fascination with the profane sensuality of materials
Photo: Jeremy Laing. Photo: Jeremy Laing.
Photo: Jeremy Laing. Photo: Jeremy Laing.

Experiences are more valuable than things, but what is an experience except a specific arrangement of things? A cumulative and tacit understanding of varied material aspects sensually absorbed, as well as culturally mediated?

In the sense of being aids or conduits to experience, every thing is a material, and therefore innately equal. We impose value—in the eye of the beholder, in the hand of the holder, in the mind of the maker—and things remain blissfully unaware of this. They may be the truest sadists, caring not for our pleasure, but absolutely foundational to our experience of it.

When I stopped making clothes I stopped making anything at all for a brief time. And while I don’t intrinsically miss anything about making clothes, I certainly was not able to leave behind the hands-on, material exploration that had always been a significant point of genesis in my artistic process.

Seeking another way of approaching textiles, after clothes, I turned to a tufting gun, a mechanical yarn-drawing tool used in commercial carpet manufacture. The resulting works—extemporaneous, sculptural yarn paintings they could be called, perhaps, though “tapestry,” “piece-of-cloth” or “sampler” will also do—are made as much to be touched as to be looked at.

It follows that, while making them, a variety of texture-appraisals and hand-feels come into play, the better to invite and invoke broad sensual experience. Readymade yarn, indeed stringlike things of any kind or description, anything that the tool can work with, suddenly became significant materials, as did the decisions that went into their making and my respective judgements about them. I stopped trusting my good taste, which of course isn’t mine at all but a residue of the privilege of others—as I recall the critic and essayist Dave Hickey once putting it.

Any material will do for some yet-to-be-discovered effect but especially the material that I find most profane, since that designation is itself so rich that “beautiful” feels a bit lacking next to it. Better yet: the material has somehow been chosen by someone else, valued in ways I can only guess, and has come to me as discarded ends from other projects long passed or abandoned.

What follows are excerpts from a diary in which I have been working through impressions and feelings about materials as I encounter them.


A tangle of noodle, dusty mould sprouted from its thin, twisted spine, the colour of a chino rag soaked in grey water, parched as grissini but incongruously possessed of a wet, kinky roil. Nice to fondle, pastiche deluxe, it has the unmistakable tinge of the synthetic: a perversion of good taste and less banal for it, if only it weren’t an accident.

From a grab-bag of discarded ends unfolds a typecast chronicle of high-chroma femme aspirations—world-making from the gutter in grand Queer tradition.


Puppet entrails unspooled, thick but with a comedically weightless bounce, in a dried sang-de-boeuf, visceral but powdery as pigment, hydrophobic, yet a colour to stain the hands. Thicker than rope, but possessing no substance at all, it could easily thread a tapestry needle.


Saturated, and with the nuance of colour afforded bulk liquid soap. A knot of minty-fresh caterpillar, weighing little in the palm. Veritable chenille, this could only be for knitting a clinical, nightmarish cocoon—away from an open flame. I am attracted by my repulsion. Why should ugliness not be as much a virtue as beauty, if beauty be a virtue at all?


“Baby Coordinates”: bright, fake, flossy acrylic, collapsing the equally synthetic binary of gender into a casually coiled pastel curse, pink strands entwined with blue. Soft-edged, but no less insistent for it, a bias toward the poles with no space between, a map with only two places, destination and no-go decreed at once. A generation’s gift to the next, the baby blanket, concatenated invocation—pink and blue, but always pink or blue—ill-worn yet tucked tightly around a little body for so much longer than it takes to fall from use.


Safety orange cord, fetishistically described by its maker in a sensual hard-sell: “Jet Set.” Braided firmly to avoid snagging and abrasion. Premium Husky Coating applied to enhance the glide and increase the abrasion resistance further. If you want the best in Slickness and Toughness, try Jet Set.


Today’s haul: Flutter by Bouclair, a spool of drag-queen false lashes set in a sunset gradient of grenadine, bagged with Luzern Tweed, Swiss-ish, making a selling feature of sober, old-world, well-pastured provenance. Also false. Value Village, $3.99.


Dollar store finds: curling ribbon, crimped polypropylene, the kind that would strangle a sea turtle after the presents have been opened and the fête over, in a range of deep oceanic blues. Silver Lurex thread, sharp, bright metallic-laminated foil; tangled nests of plastic raffia, the insipid hues of Easter; sisal twine, decorticated agave, perhaps the only natural fibre to be found in this temple of petroleum by-product. The unholy off-gassing incense stings the eyes.

Photo: Jeremy Laing. Photo: Jeremy Laing.


From a grab-bag of discarded ends unfolds a typecast chronicle of high-chroma femme aspirations to be reformatted at will, world-making from the gutter in grand Queer tradition: Linie Smash Irisée Trend Collection, wispy and golden in her breakout role; Showboat, cerulean with a flinty vein; Cindy by Bouquet, dry, ropy, she’s got that “cotton look”; Debbie Bliss, lofty atomic pink; Estelle Shimmer, sparkly but sophisticated, for whatever that is worth; Fixation by Cascade, the slubby matriarch with a bouclé twist; and finally, Club Soleil, an ingenue in the navy, red and white of Deauville.


Cotton—a box of baker’s twine rescued street-side—undyed, loosely spun and seemingly elementary, its supposed naturalness an illusion created by a heavy history of industrialization, mercantile capitalism and subjugated labour. Coursing with coercion whether physical, economic or socially prescribed. Considered, for the bulk of history, a great luxury due to the implications of its origins and production in human and environmental terms. Today, made to be disposed of by a market happy to ignore that slavery still exists. Classic cotton, cognitive dissonance by the bale, by the spindle, by the yard.


Fade-and-shrink resistance comes with a price: a squeaking frison of acrylic, a bone-deep full-body shiver, triggering an instant recoil while also daring a second attempt to touch. What pleasure is this—to want to feel disgust’s comfort again? The unreal colours match the synthetic feeling, each validating the other. A cheap substitute easily overshadows with qualities all its own—new pleasures—so that to wear cashmere feels like a loss.

This is an article from our Winter 2019 issue, “Pleasure.”

Jeremy Laing

Jeremy Laing used to make clothes and now makes things with textiles and clay. His work has been shown at Art In General (New York), Franz Kaka (Toronto), the Liverpool Biennial and MoMA (New York).