How Makwa Studio Knits Together Art, Activism, and Business

Textile artist Maggie Thompson had a busy 2020 in Minneapolis
Maggie Thompson, photographed at the Northrup King Building in northeast Minneapolis
Maggie Thompson, photographed at the Northrup King Building in northeast Minneapolis

Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

Maggie Thompson (Fond Du Lac Ojibwe) is a textile artist and curator of contemporary Native art. In 2020 her business, Makwa Studio, had its most successful year yet and became a full-time pursuit. The Rhode Island School of Design graduate was so busy this past holiday season that she closed her store in early December to catch up on orders.

Working in textiles also gave her the ability to be responsive amid the events of the pandemic and racial justice uprising last year. (Note: She and I both have studios in the same building, and collaborated on a few projects.) At the beginning of lockdowns, Thompson began the Ribbon Mask project, which donated face masks to organizations in need with every purchase. Thompson has intermixed art and activism before. In a previous role as curator at the Minneapolis American Indian Center’s Two Rivers Art Gallery, she organized a local installation of the REDress project in 2018 to highlight the missing and murdered Indigenous women epidemic’s impact on Indian Country.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Thompson recently purchased her first home and is a bunny mom to Almond and Luna, who she calls “the Buns.” This year, she hopes to complete training and produce fashion knitwear, plans to crowdfund for a STOLL knitting machine, and will seek further growth, opportunity, and collaboration.

How and when did Makwa Studio begin?

It was 2014, which is a year after I graduated. I needed something flexible because I was taking care of my dad and I also wanted to make work that was more accessible. I didn’t like the idea of giving up my designs to someone else or producing for a larger company. And [I wanted to] have it be out in the world rather than just in a gallery on a wall. It’s named Makwa Studio because of this constant bear theme in my life. I am from the Bear clan. Growing up, I spent a lot of time up north and also my nickname was “Cubby” as a kid.

Maggie Thompson in her Minneapolis studio, where she has lately made face masks decorated with ribbons
Maggie Thompson in her Minneapolis studio, where she has lately made face masks decorated with ribbons

Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

In college, what drew you to textiles?

Well, I started in architecture, and I still love structure. What I didn’t like about architecture is I found it to be somewhat toxic and unrealistically demanding. The way they push their students isn’t healthy and I don’t agree with it. I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t a good fit. I still loved it and stayed involved during their winter session and their winter design and build classes.

Freshman year, I took a machine knitting class that was in foundation year and discovered textiles and machine knitting. I had been doing textile-related activities since I was a kid. At [City of Lakes Waldorf School], I learned how to knit, crochet, sew, and all sorts of fiber-related things. I always thought it was crafting, and this [class] was my introduction to it as a profession. I got more involved after the machine knitting class. What was funny was that in my final critique in architecture, my professor said, “What is this? It looks like a textile.” And I said, “Well, that’s great because I’m leaving.”

I like textiles because it’s very therapeutic, it’s meditative. I have some anxiety-related tendencies and it helps with that. I love building things, and I really nerd out over structure and technique—understanding how the structure of knitting, different patterns, architecture, and textiles relate to one another, because thinking about how structure and textiles exist in space, and architectural spaces, is my way to connect more with architecture. I just always loved space, how it makes you feel, being inside of a space, and how it can affect a person’s emotions and the different functionalities of space.

When did your love of textiles start to interweave with your cultural heritage?

When I was little, I did stuff, but I didn’t put a connection to them. My first big textile piece I did was my jingle dress belt. I was in the fourth grade when I finished it. I beaded it and put a lot of time and effort into it. Definitely more so in college during my senior thesis was when I talked consciously about it. It was a series of pieces that talked about identity. It’s not fun to talk about anymore for whatever reason, [even though] that’s the whole topic right now. The “Family Portrait” piece that looks at why I identify as being Native, its cookie-cutter shapes, is currently in the Mia collection and on display in the Art of Americas. Growing up, I knew I was Native but I don’t think I was ever differentiated for it until I left Minnesota. 

Sometimes, when non-Natives wear your Indigenous designs it’s labeled cultural appropriation. How do you address the difference between appropriation versus appreciation to your supporters?

If you are making something with more cultural meaning, the artist needs to take responsibility for mentioning that to their customers. I’m not making sacred objects or things that would be used in ceremony. I think the appreciation is doing your research and buying from Native people or Native-owned businesses. Not just buying from Target or Urban Outfitters without knowing where the designs are coming from, but to do the research [on whether] they have collaborated with Indigenous artists or designers. I specify that all people can wear my stuff. It’s a beanie.

What experiences and challenges shaped 2020 for you?

One thing I really enjoy about textiles is you can act fast with it and move things easily. You can adapt. Being able to take scraps from a previous quilt project and immediately start making masks, you have an ability to be responsive. You can use art to help people and create community engagement with something.

Artist Maggie Thompson of Makwa Studio is selling and donating face masks
Textile artist Maggie Thompson’s ribbon-decorated face mask

Courtesy Makwa Studio/Maggie Thompson

Right in the beginning [of the pandemic], when the hospitals were asking for donations, I went to the studio and rummaged through every box to find extra fabric. As more individuals started asking for masks I would make more. I made a mask for a young woman whose mother was going through chemo from one of my mother’s old tablecloths that had embroidery on it, and it became artful. I had a bunch of ribbon lying around and that’s where the ribbon masks came out. I wanted to keep producing masks, but it was starting to become overwhelming. Having just been furloughed from my job I wanted to find how to be sustainable and practical about it. The donated masks I wanted to be “two for one” because “one for one” just didn’t seem like enough for me.

How did the increased volume of business affect you?

I don’t know what happened. I think social media really helped a lot, and there is this movement to help BIPOC artists. I was really lucky this year with publicity. I was grateful, but as a solo human working in the studio it’s hard to foresee things. I do made-to-order, so if I get 10 orders in a day that’s a lot for me. When you get 10 orders consistently, it just builds up. Physically, I was not able to [keep up] and luckily I have a lot of supportive friends and family that came in and helped during the holidays. I had estimated that I could make [only] so many pieces, and it all just exceeded that, which was great.

Being a small business owner and working alone, now I have to start thinking about who I can hire to help knit. I feel like I’m ready to make those changes because there is a demand for it. It’s a little scary. You just want to do it right, and you want consistency when you’re an artist and small business owner. I’m learning what consistency looks like so I can feel comfortable bringing someone on and be able to support them. It’s just all things I’m trying to figure out. My background is not business.

I just had to hit pause [at the end of the year], and that’s something that people aren’t really used to. I actually am in support of people hitting pause every once in a while because that’s human. That’s what sets us apart from places like Target or other big places.

What do you see coming for Makwa Studio in 2021?

I really need to get it together as a business owner. I never thought my fine art and my knitwear would separate but I feel it naturally separating. Which is OK. I’ll never stop doing one or the other. I want Makwa to become an LLC, to get a STOLL knitting machine, and to collaborate with other artists. I move slow; that’s just how I’m growing my business. I would love to do a mentorship program, bring on more internships, and support other people’s projects in the studio. The financial side of things is very intimidating, so I plan to reach out to other business owners and ask questions.

You recently partnered with Askov Finlayson to reimagine their “North” hats. Do you have any more upcoming collaborations?

Faribault Woolen Mills is doing an upcycling program, so they’re working with me to weave their blanket scraps into rugs. They’re looking at their waste and trying to bring in a new spin to resolve that. I would love to similarly partner with artists how Askov Finlayson partnered with me, to create patterns for products and also anything that they want to create on an industrial knitting machine and mentoring them through that. I want to also do limited editions of products by other people. I’m learning industrial knitting, so if they have a design idea for a dress or a pantsuit, [I want] to be able to help them make it.

Now that you’re caught up with your orders and have a moment to relax, how are you taking care of yourself?

Sleeping a lot. I have actually mostly unpacked my house after living in it for a month surrounded by boxes. I haven’t gotten back into fitness. I would like to do pole more. This is my first full week, but I’ve been really good at going home at night and just working through the day and cooking my meals. Also just being more intentional with people that I do see.

Keep tabs on Maggie Thompson’s work at makwastudio.com as well as on Facebook, Twitter (@Makwastudio), and Instagram (@makwa_studio)

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