Macramé artist and co-owner of creative retail space Think Thornbury, Maggie May, talks about unexpectedly opening a shop, how mental health issues affect creativity and why you should always register domain names ASAP.
Maggie May has a lot on her plate.
As the one-woman engine room behind cult macramé business the Middle Aisle, May is the embodiment of the creative portfolio career (or ‘slashie’, if you can stand that term). She spends her days knotting and tying ordinary rope, transforming it into elaborate macramé pieces she then markets and sells using her graphic design and styling nous. She literally does it all.
Macramé has completely—and unexpectedly—changed May’s life in just a few short years. It was the fruits of a friend’s attempt at the craft that triggered what’s become a lasting passion—one that also took May from a genuine low point in both her career and life to her current heights of creative entrepreneurship.
The fervour May holds for her chosen vocation is palpable from the moment you meet her. Warm, energetic and frank, it’s easy to see why she has more than 18k Instagram followers hanging on her every post, and why aspirational companies like Etsy and Frankie Magazine have come knocking for collabs.
Not content to rest on her laurels, May took things to the next level last year when she opened another small business, this time with her musician fiancé Josh Kelly. Stocking locally made and ethically produced items, Think Thornbury is a beautifully curated retail space in, well, Thornbury, Victoria. The High Street shop doubles as a creative space for workshops, photoshoots and gigs, as well as a much-needed hub for the Middle Aisle.
Talk about a self-starter, amirite? We sat down with this ambitious woman to find out how she manages the many pots she has on the boil, and what’s in store for the future.
Hey Maggie! To start off, can you give us a rundown of your story to date?
I think I always wanted to do something creative. When I was leaving high school, I wanted to do fine arts and my parents both said no. It wasn’t that they were trying to stifle my creativity or anything—all of the courses I applied for were design-based—it was just that they wanted me to have good, solid job prospects.
I got into every design course I applied for except the one I wanted, which was communication design at RMIT. But I still got into all these other courses that were apparently quite hard to get into, so I felt quite flattered. It was also really vindicating for me, because my high school careers counsellor had been like, ‘They’re really hard courses to get into, I don’t want you to be disappointed if you don’t get into them’. I wasn’t going to do anything else, though.
So I did a year of industrial design. I really liked aspects of the course but there were really large parts of it I didn’t like. It didn’t suit me; I was not into it. I ended up trying really, really hard all through first semester—like, I got into this really prestigious course, I'm going to give it my all—and I got my drawing portfolio back and they just tore it to shreds. I’d worked really, really hard on it. So I was just like, ‘Fuck it, this is not for me’.
I was also just really young—just 18, not really thinking about things. I ended up going to live in England for a year, getting a little bit of life experience.
Then when I got back, I didn’t apply for uni because my mother had told me that I had to do it, and I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything you’re telling me to do because all the advice you’ve given me was wrong!’ So I dicked around for another year and got into communication design and interior design at Swinburne. I really loved the interior design aspect. I thought, ‘Yes, I’m going to be an interior architect; this is what I’m going to do’.
But I did the first two and half years of the course and then switched completely over to comms. I was enjoying it more—I felt it was more creative, because all of the creative fun bits of interior architecture had been replaced by the really technical stuff I hated about industrial design, like doing CAD drawings.
I had a conversation with one of my interior design lecturers and she was like, ‘The first five years of your career will be doing just that’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s not for me’. So I focused more on the creative side of things. At that point, I was still so far away from knowing what macramé was. But I got a job with a wedding planner while I was at uni, and then with an interior design company straight out of uni.
About six months into [the latter] I started thinking about sustainability and my own impact on the planet. I watched a documentary about where our fashion is made and it completely changed my perspective on consumption and my impact on the planet and what I was doing. I was like, ‘Shit, all the things I’m working on for this company are contributing to more landfill, more shit’.
So I got really, really depressed. And I've had pretty bad depression and anxiety for much of my adult life, but this was probably my first bout of it being really, really severe—crying in the bathroom at work every day kind of thing. But I realised that even though I’m one person, the actions I take and the choices I make directly affect other people.
So I ended up looking for a new job, and I couldn’t find one. Then a friend said I could work packing CDs for this company for a good hourly rate. I ended up at the front desk, and was there for 12 months. At that time I started getting my first migraines. I’d end up calling in sick like three times a week because I was always getting really bad, chronic migraines. I was also still feeling a lot of depression and anxiety. I wasn’t doing anything creative, and was also experiencing some family issues.
And then one day I saw macramé. I don’t want to say it fixed my life and made it better. But I saw this plant hanger a friend had made and thought it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in my entire life—suddenly this one piece of string had this tangibility to it that just made sense. I loved that. So I started buying lots of rope and making lots of macramé. I started sharing stuff on Instagram—just a little creative outlet I had, like, if I don’t do something creative I’m going to go mad.
So it kind of grew out of that. Next thing I knew, I was making bridal arches and working with photographers and stylists. I had also started working four to five days a week at [printing business] Das Automat while building Middle Aisle. At one point I dropped back to two days there and five days here as we built Think Thornbury. And then I just stopped at Das Automat altogether because I couldn’t keep up with both.
So how did the shop come about?
Josh and I were looking for a studio space for me in January last year; we had just gotten engaged and were like, ‘What are we going to do with our lives?’ We wanted to get my stuff out of the house and into a studio—our dining room was more of a storeroom for my rope and it was just time.
We looked at a few spaces and then the shop kind of happened because we saw this studio space with the shop downstairs. I think I always thought I’d like to own my own store, and it grew out of that philosophy of buying things that are locally made.
So we thought it was a good way of making a living and supporting our community as well. We sat down and thought about what we wanted to get out of this, and were like, ‘If our rent’s covered and we’re making enough to go on holiday every now and then, and pay for our wedding, that’s enough’.
Did you have many fears when you started the shop?
Fuck, every day! My anxiety means everything’s a fear—a manageable fear, on most days.
When we started the shop and needed to order stock, actually sitting down and going, ‘I’m going to spend $1,000 on this and then hopefully people will buy it and we won’t go broke and we won’t have to declare bankruptcy’—that was where my brain went when we started. It was stressful. So yeah, everything was a fear.
Do you experience much self-doubt? How do you overcome it?
Every day. If I don’t spiral into some kind of negativity, it’s much easier. I have to take deep breaths and tell myself that everything I’m feeling is completely normal. And just do something—it doesn’t matter what it is, just focus on one thing and work on it.
I think teaching my own macramé workshops has really assisted me in that, because it’s like, ‘What do I say to my students when they’re standing in front of some rope and they’ve never done it before and they’re beating themselves up because they’re not perfect at it?’ And it’s like, you don’t have to be perfect at it—you just have to try. So I try to remind myself of that. But it’s hard.
You’re very open about your anxiety on social media—how does it impact your work, and how do you deal with it?
It can be cured with fried chicken most of the time!
No, the anxiety has been getting worse this past year. I think that’s got to do with not only opening a shop and Middle Aisle being more busy than it ever has been, but the bar that I keep setting for myself gets higher and higher.
So it’s like, ‘I want to work with Etsy and Frankie and I want to be in Broadsheet’. I set all these goals and then I did it and I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’ve done all that now—what do I do now? How do I move forward?’ So I think it’s momentum wrapped up with anxiety.
I have to remind myself I’m not the work that I do, and people will love me regardless of how I do in all these things.
Do you ever worry that what you’re contributing to the creative landscape isn’t good enough?
When you have a conversation with someone, you’re never going to have that same conversation with someone else. That interaction will be beautiful in what it is, just because of it being two people resonating with each other, whether you don’t like each or you’re best friends or you’re in love.
When people look at artwork, I think there’s that same unique connection—you’re doing it from a place of love and good intention.
When people look at my macramé and go, ‘It’s beautiful’, it is a specific reflection on me and my ideas. Everything is improvised and I don’t work from patterns. I think that’s what different and interesting about my work. I do consciously avoid macramé trends, and I won’t remake the same work twice. It’s more than surface-level bullshit.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in your career so far?
There was a woman in Queensland who started a macramé business and she called it Maggie May Macramé. I didn’t know—she had all these dates listed for workshops on her website, and a person who’d once bought rope off me emailed me said they’d just booked into my class in Queensland. I was like, ‘I’m not doing a class in Queensland… ?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, I just booked it with Maggie May Macramé’.
My heart just sank. I tried getting in touch with the woman and she wasn’t responding, so I had to post on Instagram to say it’s not me. It’s one thing to copy pictures from my account, it’s another to take my entire name and identity and just run with it. She ended up getting in contact with me because there were like 300 comments on the post being like, ‘How could anyone do that?’ Not that I wanted people to target her, I just didn’t want anyone to think it was me and be misled.
She basically said she didn’t think it would be a problem, because it was her daughter’s name and she thought it was cute. But she ended up changing the name, and she still makes macramé. I thought it was pretty unkind, and immediately registered all domain names!
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
I know it's really idealistic, but through my work I just want to help make people a bit happier and try something new and not compare themselves to everyone else.
Practically speaking, Josh and I would really like to keep the shop going for the next couple of years at least. At some point we would really like to have a family, and I’d like to have a day off as well! So getting the store to a place where it’s at least earning enough to get a person in and helping out would be really great.
Ultimately, I want to be doing more events, getting more stock in the store, and really pushing this concept to its full potential for as long as we can—before I expire and move to the country to make macramé all day and drink cups of tea, which is the real dream!
Virtual pep talk
Just fucking do it!
Pursuing a creative career will be the scariest and hardest thing you’ve ever done, and at times it’ll feel like the worst thing you’ve ever done, but it’ll also be the best. Things that are hard aren’t hard because everyone does them—if something’s really hard, the reward’s better at the end of it.