Margaret Jane Design
Words: Chelsea Parkinson / Photos: Janine Kropla
She kept thanking us for coming. Between talk of wool and of walking, of Mondays and grandmothers, came offers of sweet tea and homemade loaf, and queries into our levels of comfort and warmth. Because, although this afternoon was about celebrating Christie Peters of Margaret Jane Design, it was quickly and constantly apparent that what she loves most is to make others feel their best.
Have you ever heard Christie’s laugh? Like her work, it is not to be missed. Go - find her at one of her pop-up sales. Her deep, soaring giggles are generously abundant.
Her laugh comes out in her work. Her pieces - merino wool scarves and necklaces in a bevy of hues - boom out just like laughter. They share with that most spontaneous and elated of human expressions the qualities of joy and surprise. And yet, like the maker herself, they are also infinitely warm and unspeakably soft.
Here is our afternoon with Christie.
Muddy Water: I feel like many people in Winnipeg have a “getting out” story. Whether it’s getting out of the city, out of the neighbourhood in which they grew up, or just out of a way of living and believing. Do you have such a story?
Christie: Yeah, I definitely do. I grew up in St. Vital, which could be called a suburb, I think. I love my family and I loved growing up there with them, but since I’ve moved deeper into the city I’ve realized some things that I was missing out on by living there. For instance, I find that people in the suburbs don’t go for walks, unless maybe if they have a dog. But they don’t just walk places.
MW: Those neighbourhoods are even designed so that you won’t [walk], aren’t they? They’re a confusing maze, with very few sidewalks and very few places to walk to. There isn’t much of a street culture.
C: Exactly. And as a teen I sometimes felt that I needed to go somewhere. So I would try to walk, and I had this very emotional time where I would go to this field by my house and light candles and just lie there. I never felt like I really belonged in St. Vital.
MW: You needed to be somewhere that would provide a different kind of inspiration?
C: Yes. And I got that by moving downtown. I found it more inspiring. It has energy. I lived on Broadway for a while, in the Princeton, which is kind of a classic Winnipeg place to move into, kind of run down. They actually filmed a horror movie there at one point while I was living there.
MW: Did you ever see the movie?
C: No, I never saw it, and I don’t even remember what it was called. I just remember that there were cameras and that I was living in this perfect horror movie setting. It was very funny. My parents were nervous.
MW: How did that time in your life feed your creativity?
C: Living downtown just naturally inspires creativity, I think. There are so many different people. I made some really good friends and got more into fashion and kind of came into my own that way. In high school I wasn't allowing myself to really experiment with my tastes or my voice or even my fashion sense. I had to move out and start creating a space and a life and a story that was my own.
MW: What do you find difficult about the creative work you do?
C: That’s a good question. I love the process of making new things. Making something totally new to me is probably my favourite part of what I do. So, on the other side of that, I do find it difficult to make a similar piece over and over. In my dream life I would like to design all of my pieces…and not necessarily have someone else make it all, but maybe… (laughs)
MW: I think that’s understandable. Didn’t Andy Warhol have others help him finish up a lot of his works, to increase his productivity? He had all these assistants and he’d instruct them on what to do, so that he could move on to the next thing.
C: Right. I do think that relinquishing that amount of control would be hard for me. Doing everything from start to finish is such a gratifying thing. But maybe one day, way down the line, I could have help. Right now it’s okay that it’s just me.
MW: Have you collaborated with others on past projects?
C: Yeah, working alone is fairly new to me. I had a business with my best friend for some time, three or four years, and then she moved on to something else. Then I started a new creative project with another friend. This is my first time doing something like this by myself, and it feels different. It feels vulnerable. I think when you’re in collaboration you can fall back on the other person and rely on them, which is so beautiful. You can use each other’s strengths and balance out each other’s weaknesses. And if something doesn't turn out you can be like, well, she made that (laughs)! No, I’m kidding about that part. But in a collaboration you don’t feel like you're risking so much. That was my experience.
MW: How did you come to make wool pieces, and particularly scarves and necklaces?
C: I had done some wool scarves in the past project with a friend, that I mentioned. So I’ve been making scarves for some time. The necklaces sort of came about because I wanted to work on a smaller scale. The scarves are great and they're really fun to make, but they use a lot of wool. I wanted to make something that didn't require as much wool, but that I could still play around with in terms of colour and texture. I feel really interested in where ideas come from, how they happen. And that’s part of why I get so much out of collaboration; the idea happens between the two [people]. But by yourself, where does it come from? With these necklaces, I first saw the rope around which I wrap the wool, and wanted to make something with this rope. I just felt inspired by it.
MW: You're wearing a Margaret Jane necklace right now. Do you have favourites? Do you find each piece comes out differently?
C: Yeah, they definitely do come out differently, and I like that. That’s part of why I like to work with wool. I’ve been working with [it] on different projects for the last ten years or so. It makes every piece a little bit different. I enjoy if what I’m working on can surprise me and come to life on its own. And the wool can do so many things; it can be felted, it can be knit - it’s really moldable and malleable.
MW: Can it be a tricky material, or can you always get it to where you want it?
C: It’s more sensitive than tricky. With the company, I [worked] with one of my best friends when we were just out of school - we were both about twenty. We were doing felted wool scarves. Felting is pretty labour intensive. You're hitting and throwing the wool - it’s very aggressive. It takes a very long time and it took us time to refine our technique. That can be the nature of using wool.
MW: How long do the necklaces take from start to finish, and what is the process like?
C: It starts off with a cotton cord, just like a length of rope. And then I take three pieces of merino wool - sometimes in different tones, sometimes all the same tone - and I braid and bunch them up around the cord so that they press together. Once I’ve done that I felt the wool, which starts out in this kind of cotton-candy state, using soap and water to rub it until it becomes one piece. The merino wool that I use has long fibres, so it’s one of the softer wools. The necklaces take about forty-five minutes to an hour…longer if I’m watching Netflix while I make them.
MW: Where do you source your wool from?
C: I get it from a guy in the States. I tried to find a more local source, but it is kind of tricky, because I have to order so much, and if I run out it takes a while to come in. But he's great. He supplies about thirty different colours and he's quick at getting back to me. I’ve been buying wool from him for the last ten years.
MW: Do you find you’re able to keep motivated and inspired without someone else beside you, working with you? Like so many people pursuing creative endeavours, you also work full time (at Freshair Boutique on Corydon), so how do you keep up your energy and your momentum to continue creating?
C: I do have to work at that. I have Mondays off, so usually Mondays are the days that I have to do my more creative work, and it just has to happen on that day, because it’s what I’ve got. You have to have discipline enough to put in the time and be there. I find that ideas can come when you put time into thinking them up, but sometimes you can’t just make that happen. It can be a hard process - to think of something you want to do, and be able to be [present] when the idea comes.
MW: What is your pace like?
C: I feel like sometimes it’s super frenetic and chaotic, and other times it’s very slow and methodical; it depends where I’m at. If I’m preparing for a sale, then I can just go. I definitely need deadlines for motivation sometimes. Just like having you guys come here motivated me to clean my studio.
MW: What would you say motivated you to start creating in the first place? Have you been creative your whole life?
C: Yeah, I’d say so. For a long time dance was my number one focus. I always danced when I was growing up, starting from when I was eight. When I graduated I really started to pursue it professionally. I went through the professional program at the School for Contemporary Dancers, and that’s a pretty intensive four-year program. Then I danced professionally for a few years.
I was always making things on the side. I feel like I’ve always had a split focus. I always have a lot of things going on, and I like that. But I really admire people who are able to pick one thing and focus on it. I think it’s always a sacrifice to pursue any one thing to its fullest extent. I think I know what it takes to do that, but I still find comfort in having a few things to do. Maybe it’s a self-preservation thing. I think as far as being motivated to create, a lot of that comes from my mom, who always sewed and made things. She’s half of the name; she’s Jane, and my grandma is Margaret.
MW: Was it hard to pick a name?
C: It’s so hard to pick a name. In one way, it’s something that identifies you so much. But then I look at a line like Jill (Sawatzky)’s Tony Chestnut, or March & August, or Wilder - which are all slightly ambiguous names, and I really like that. And with those kinds of names, you can build the brand around the name, and the name becomes everything you build around it. You kind of just have to decide. Choose a name, go with it, and be behind it. My grandma, my mom, they anchor me. They were the first people to inspire me to make things. They're both very strong, courageous women. I hoped it would be timeless in the sense that it has that connection to those women, but it doesn't necessarily tie me down to any one thing. For instance, there’s no mention of wool in the name. So if I decide to pull something else into my work, I’ll have the freedom to do that, without the name becoming confusing.
MW: Have you always been geared towards designing for women? Pieces that you yourself would like to wear?
C: Yeah. Where it starts for me is saying, “okay what would I want to wear?” Then I’ll make [a piece] and wear it. Other people might express interest in it, and then I’ll make more for others. I really like making things, and it’s nice to be able to sell them so that [I] can keep making. You get the satisfaction without having a bulging closet. No one needs thirty wool scarves. They just need one (laughs)! You have to start making [pieces] for and about someone else.
MW: Do you have any plans or hopes or dreams for Margaret Jane, or are you going day by day?
C: At this point I’m going day by day. I think the ultimate dream would be to be able to do this more full time. I don’t know how I would know or decide when it’s time to do that, but I feel like that would be the goal. At the same time, though, I do like having lots of things on the go.
MW: Looking at your necklaces and scarves, words are popping into my head… Words like statement, fun, comfort, expression, warmth. I was wondering how you, yourself might describe your work.
That’s really nice, to hear those words. I think that I make things that appeal to people who want to stand out in a crowd. I want things to be comfortable - warm and soft, and that you can keep close to your neck, but also to be something that people would look at and go, “Whoa.” I’d love to make something that hasn't been seen before, that isn't out there already. I’ll sometimes do a quick search on the Internet to see what others are doing with felted wool. I don’t want to just saturate a market with something that has been done before. It helps me to make sure I’m doing something a bit different.
You can find Christie and her creations on Instagram, @margaretjanedesign, or on her website, margaretjanedesign.squarespace.com.