The day I visited Maggie Thompson at her Northrup King Building studio, she and her recently hired assistant, Mary Jean (MJ) Potamites, were awfully busy. With a bold lineup of holiday craft shows, orders on the website, and other special requests for her unique, high-quality knitwear, Maggie knows that November in the North equates a demanding time for her handmade and stylish warm weather attire. As MJ hand sewed a seam on their latest creation—a classic indigo beanie from the Solid Collection, Maggie showed me around her finicky sewing machine, explaining the mechanics of using certain weights, her self-designed pattern sheet, and a great deal of patience. She even invited me to sit down and give it a try. After I made sure that there was no way I could ruin the beautiful beanie she had already started, with her instruction, I tugged gently on one of weights, pushed the apparatus all the way across the machine, and finished by tugging on the weight on the opposite side. As I sat in her shoes for a moment, I gained an appreciation of the patience she must encompass in doing this day in and day out. However, instead of complaining about the time spent here and (I imagine) the sometimes tedious repetition of her making process, she smiles and assures me that she enjoys the peaceful, contemplative nature of the work. And as I looked around her cozy Northeast Minneapolis workshop—a space filled with lovely spools of colorful wool, the artwork of close friends, and a few of Maggie’s innovative, conceptual projects—I get a glimpse into her peaceful, yet courageous passion.
Talk about the beginnings of Makwa Studio. What inspired you to begin this endeavor?
I started Makwa Studio in the fall of 2014, so I am currently ending my second year of business. I received my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Textiles from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013, but have had an interest in textiles since I was in 4th grade at the Minnesota Waldorf School. During my senior year of college I started to observe how Native culture was being portrayed in mainstream fashion and began critiquing the cultural appropriation that I was witnessing as a young artist and designer. I became interested in how I, as a Native person of mixed heritage, could join the conversation and help shift what was being put out in to the world to represent a culture that is about way more than feathers and tipis.
Your site shares that Makwa means “bear” in the Ojibwe language. What does the bear represent to you?
I am Fond du Lac Ojibwe, but was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I chose to have “Makwa” or bear as the name of my business because of my family’s relationship to bears and traveling to the Boundary Waters as a kid. I also wanted to promote the Ojibwe language and will hopefully add more language elements as I keep learning.
Have you always been creative? What forms or channels have you explored in your creative journey?
I grew up with having artists for parents so I have always been involved in the arts. My mom is a photographer and painter and my dad was a graphic designer and musician. In high school, I did drawing, painting, and screen-printing, but was first introduced to the world of fiber arts at the MN Waldorf School when I started there in 4th grade, but explored painting, drawing, and screen printing when I was in high school at Perpich Center for Arts Education.
Then in college I actually started in Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design and ended up transferring in to the Textiles Department for my third year of college. RISD is very design oriented, so throughout the duration of my education I spent most of my time experimenting with materials and techniques and it wasn’t until my last year of school that I began to explore more conceptual avenues of textiles and art.
How have the items you make evolved? How have you evolved as a maker and business owner?
Since coming out of school, I had this design background with a heavy influence of conceptual art that I wanted to turn in to a more practical form for art that would be more accessible to the majority of people, so that’s why I started doing knitwear. At first I was using cotton yarns to explore different patterns and color ways, but now I have access to finer wool yarns that are rich in color and quality.
Learning the business side of things is definitely a challenge for me as I don’t have any background in it, but have definitely learned a lot about managing my time and a budget. I literally started out buying small 6oz balls of yarn from the Textile Center and have since grown to be able to buy wholesale. I also manage my own website, do all the photography and make and ship the items. When starting out, I did have a lot of help from friends and family and just recently brought in an intern, so now I am learning how to manage someone else too. But there are so many more things to learn as Makwa keeps growing.
What does your process of making look like from start to finish? What do you value in your own creative process?
I usually draw out my patterns in a sketch or using graph paper, and then I create small swatches playing with different color ways. When I’m creating a new item, I usually just do it and figure out the pattern on the spot and adjust accordingly making a few different sample pieces of varying sizes. I really love the mathematics and figuring out the structure of a piece. It is very therapeutic to me although the knitting machine is a character of its own and can be fussy, so you always have to be paying acute attention to what you’re doing. I also love the fact that when your piece comes off, you get to have the satisfaction of knowing that you made that piece of fabric.
How does your Native heritage inform your creative work? How does that translate for the people who buy your goods? My work is definitely influenced by beading and creating something out of smaller parts to create its whole. I think of regalia and bead working and how much time is put in to creating a garment and they are so visually striking and powerful. I can only hope that my main knitwear pieces translate in the same way.
What have you found in the creative community in Minneapolis and/or Minnesota?
Minneapolis has a great creative community! There are so many events and opportunities happening. Also having the ability to talk with so many other artists and makers about their experiences is very helpful and is a great support system.
Do you like to experiment with different materials or techniques in your work?
Absolutely. Especially in my fine art I always strive to push one’s understanding of what textiles are or can be. More recently I’ve been incorporating photography in to my work and have created pieces using mixed median elements such as pins, beer caps, and vinyl. I also hope to bring on more structural knit pieces too.
Do you feel like your work allows you to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
I think that I am definitely contributing to the conversation about cultural appropriation and I am always asking myself questions especially now that I am beginning to explore clothing more. Also as Makwa gains more stability I want there to be a “give back” component, whether it’s creating a scholarship for school or an employment program for the Native community. This is something that I hope to start looking in to and flesh out more within the next year or two.