Kelli Wefenstette sewed her first quilt when she was four, with a little bit of “help” from her grandmother. Jess Duff went through a friendship bracelet phase. As adults, Kelli graduated to recycled tote bags, Jess to soy wax candles and when the two women met at a craft show in July 2010, they immediately blurted the same idea: We could do this better. Let’s start our own fair.
The concept is so simple as to appear obvious. Where Wefenstette notes that craft fairs are often expensive to enter (securing space at an event like the Renegade Craft Fair can cost as much as $400), time-consuming and, in Chicago, concentrated during the summer, particularly in Wicker Park, the Urban Folk Circuit is essentially the opposite. Artisans pay $40 to enter, events are limited to a few hours instead of an entire weekend, and the Urban Folk Circuit takes place monthly, rotating among various venues that donate the their space to UFC free of charge. Entrance to the fairs is also free.
The series debuted in October 2010. “The first time, we just contacted all our friends and said, ‘Hey, we’re starting a craft show,’” Wefenstette says. “After a couple of months, we were turning people away.” Depending on the size of the venue, the number of participants in a given show can range from 20 to more than 50; the handmade items seldom cost more than $50.
The idea is closely akin to that of a farmers market, just substitute handmade jewelry for broccoli. “For me personally, it’s about ethical consumerism,” says Wefenstette. “You can have a say in what you consume, how it’s produced and buy it directly from the person who made it.”
In little more than a year, Urban Folk Circuit has grown to the point that Wefenstette and Duff recently doubled the size of their staff. “We were getting overwhelmed,” she says. Tuesday Bennett came on board to assist with marketing and Heidi Gustad is heading up a DIY initiative, including teaching a free craft at every show.
Having trialed a number of venues in 2011, the fair is now returning to some of its favorite sites, including The Grafton. “They found us,” recalls Wefenstette of receiving a phone call from general manager Ben Munro. “That was our biggest giddy moment.”
Munro heard about Urban Folk Circuit from a musician who played at an early fair. “We’re so intertwined with the Old Town School of Folk Music,” says Munro. “We already have an urban folk culture, it seemed like a no-brainer.” Local musicians will serenade fair goers on Saturday, furthering the neighborhood connection.
Wefenstette, who hails from tiny Cuba, Ill., population 1,500, is the first to admit that the notion of craft making in an urban setting can seem contradictory, closer to Little House on the Prairie than a densely populated city. She and her husband Jimmy Thomas, who she often refers to as Jimmyredhed on her blog, live in Portage Park, where in 2009 they bought a house originally constructed as a barn. They have raised bed gardens and rain barrels; chickens are coming March. “We compost, I started canning,” she says. “Connecting to the earth, cooking, making things by hand, I found more of these things I value in Chicago than in [Cuba]. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.”