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One of Makwa Studio’s most popular cowls.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Maggie Thompson, founder of the Minneapolis-based knitwear business Makwa Studio, never intended to be a small craft business owner. But six years after founding her business, Thompson is on the path towards making Makwa Studio her full-time job.

Thompson, who is Fond Du Lac Ojibwe, uses her vibrant knitwear as a way to start conversations about what Native-made fashion looks like. Over her years of knitting, she has developed a unique style and grown a small business that she balances with an emerging fine art career. But her goals for Makwa Studio in 2020 are her most ambitious yet.

An early love for knitting

Thompson first learned to hand knit in fourth grade at the Minnesota Waldorf School. “It’s like learning patience,” Thompson said of learning to knit in school at such a young age, noting that knitting also teaches color and shapes, math, and fine motor skills. “It’s very meditative. That’s what I got out of it as a kid.”

Thompson machine knitting at the Boundary Waters.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

She continued hand knitting through high school, focusing on hats, scarves, and gloves. When Thompson left Minnesota to attend college at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she decided to study architecture. But half way through college, after taking a textiles class where she was first introduced to machine knitting, Thompson decided to switch majors and study fiber arts.

“I have a love and passion for architecture, but there was a moment in a final where I turned in my final model, and they literally said this looks more like a textile piece than a building,” Thompson said. That moment helped propel Thompson towards her decision to focus on textiles. “I think my path is definitely in knitwear and fine arts now,” she said.

Founding Makwa Studio

After college, Thompson moved home to Minnesota. Her career path wasn’t clear yet, but she sometimes envisioned working as a surface designer for a large skateboard or surf company. Shortly after graduation, Thompson’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she focused on getting a flexible job and a steady income. While working at a local coffee shop, she decided to start selling knitwear to earn extra income.

Besides generating more money, Thompson missed being creative.

“I really wanted to make more of my work accessible to everyday people,” she said, “I love making art, but I also wanted folks to be able to wear art and make it tangible.”

Hats by Makwa Studio.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Cowl by Makwa Studio.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

In 2014, Makwa Studio officially launched. Focusing on machine knitting, which she prefers to hand knitting because it speeds up production time, Makwa Studio’s knitwear designs blend Thompson’s characteristic pops of color and interest in pattern with her Ojibwe heritage.

Makwa (pronounced “Mukwa”) means bear in Ojibwe, and the name of Thompson’s small business holds special significance for her. As a child, her nickname was “Cubbie,” and her family is Bear Clan.

“I’m part Ojibwe and that influences a lot of my work,” Thompson said. “I can use my work as a tool for learning more about my culture and heritage.”

One of Thompson’s goals with her small business is being part of a larger conversation about what Native fashion is and what it looks like. “Being Native doesn’t mean you necessarily need to make things that ‘look’ Native, whatever that means to other people,” Thompson said. “Yes, I love Native culture and beading and regalia and quillwork, but I’m also influenced by pop culture.” Running a Native-made business that challenges stereotypes and encourages customers to rethink their assumptions about Indigenous fashion and design is at the center of Thompson’s business strategy.

Balancing business ownership and fine art

In addition to running Makwa Studio, Thompson is also an accomplished fine artist who has shown work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Plains Art Museum, and All My Relations Gallery. Thompson has also collaborated with artist Emily Johnson (Yup’ik) on a multi-year performance project titled Then A Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars. This community-centered performance is “dedicated to building an all-night, outdoor performance gathering.”

For her contribution to the project, Thompson designed a series of 84 quilts that when finished equal about 4,000 square feet. At each performance, the quilts are laid out on the ground to form a large design inspired by beadwork. Thompson’s quilts, made at large sewing bees, were also part of the project’s community building focus. Thompson collected quilt squares that people from a variety of communities wrote on, as she said, to “answer the question of what they want for their well-being, their community, their family, their loved ones, and the world.”

Some of the quilts designed by Maggie Thompson.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Community hopes written onto quilt squares.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Running a small craft business and balancing a fine art career may seem overwhelming, but Thompson takes it in stride. “Knitting is kind of like my bread and butter,” Thompson said. “It pays the studio rent.” Thompson doesn’t divide her time rigidly between Makwa Studio and her fine art, instead focusing on making art when she’s most inspired to. “It’s a pressure I don’t want to put on myself, to make art to make a living,” she said.

“My art practice is more therapeutic and more personal.”

This calm approach to her craft and art balance is crucial as Thompson moves toward making Makwa Studio her full-time job.

Growing and giving back

Thompson currently knits on a Brother knitting machine that she manipulates with her hands. Her current machine is much faster than traditional hand knitting, but Thompson is moving towards working with an even faster STOLL industrial knitting machine that will allow her to increase production, create more complex patterns, and possibly introduce more items at different price points.

Cowl designed and made by Maggie Thompson’s Makwa Studio.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Thompson

For six weeks in the fall of 2019, Thompson traveled to Germany to train at the STOLL company and learn the ins and outs of their industrial machines. She was familiar with industrial knitting machines before signing up for this training course, but didn’t know that people could purchase them outside of large manufacturing companies until a chance encounter with an industrial knitter changed her career path.

While vacationing in Ireland in 2018, Thompson met a small business owner who sold knitwear and had two STOLL machines in his shop. He suggested that Thompson travel to Germany to learn how to work with STOLL machines, and she researched it as soon as she returned home. Thompson has one more class to take in Germany this spring, then she hopes to make some big changes to Makwa Studio’s production capacity. “It’ll definitely change the business, but I think it’ll be for the best,” she said.

Along with getting her industrial knitting machine in 2020, Thompson also plans to make Makwa Studio her full-time focus, hopes to write a concrete business plan, and aspires to implement a “give back” component to her business. “Whether that’s working with other Native artists, or employing folks, or giving back to a local organization […] that’s something I’m really trying to work towards.” Thompson has big goals for Makwa Studio moving forward, and after six years behind her knitting machine, she’s ready to grow her business.

Laura McDowell Hopper

Laura McDowell Hopper

Social Media Manager and Staff Writer

Laura is our Social Media Manager and Staff Writer. Her work has appeared in Quiltfolk, Modern Patchwork, QuiltCon Magazine, and more. She is also an award-winning curator focused on textile preservation, an avid quilter, and a volunteer on nonprofit quilt boards. Laura believes that every crafter has an interesting story to tell, and she is committed to telling those stories elegantly and rigorously. She lives near Chicago, Illinois.

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