Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair

Yesterday (Sunday) saw two firsts:

one, Chicago had its first day of snow this season – the kind of overcast, subtly slushy city day that feels like a call to snowy adventure. I felt a bit like Peter in Ezra Jack Keats’ beautiful The Snowy Day.

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Two, I attended my very first indie craft show (!), the annual Renegade Craft Fair held in Chicago’s Bridgeport Art Center. This historic 1911 building is an industrial work space in wood beams, skylights, exposed brick, and 3,ooo lb-bearing freight elevators which shake and hum mechanically as they take you to the Skyline Loft on the 5th floor. The building oozes with the energy of creative labour, making the perfect meeting place for lovers of handmade and artisanal wares. Despite still coming off of the tail end of my head cold (this thing is really hanging on), I was determined to go to the Fair. Having first read about it in Handmade Nation, I was very curious about what kinds of things Midwestern crafters were working on.

When we arrived Sunday, the venue was packed to the hilt – really a bustling marketplace. Apparently, Chicagoans love their crafts.

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With roughly 250 vendors, wares included handmade knits, prints, candles, cards, soaps, ceramics, stationary, jewelry, housewares, handwoven textiles (even macramé plant hangers!). I was able to meet and chat with a few folks in the Chicago and regional arts/crafts community and was really inspired by their examples – people who combined hard work and creativity to produce original and magnificent (and useful) things. The ethos of the event, I felt, explored the unity of form and function – the view that art and artistry can be present in, and celebrate, ordinary life and the everyday. Finding and making beauty in the ordinary is something that I deeply value. [Aside: There happen to be no craft-persons or artists in my immediate family that I know of, so I’ve always wondered where this strong impulse came from. The only genealogical ‘art link’ I was able to find was my Great Uncle Andrew. According to the story, he studied with the Philippine portraitist Fernando Amorsolo and was a very talented painter who lived a mostly impoverished life. He’s been described as a kind spirit, perpetually fretful, and worrying.]

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Left: The Loopy Mango yarn booth and its hand-knit super-duper chunky merino sweaters.

I digress. With all the craft and design energy abuzz, I couldn’t help but have an inkling of what it might be like to participate in a fair one day. I started to think of what kinds of things I might be able to produce, and what steps I might take to begin to share my work. Would I choose one medium? Explore several? Or combine them all into a single, new, art-craft megabundle? What would my goals be? Until I decide, I’m happy to continue doodling, subway-knitting, avidly reading blogs, and being an all-around craft enabler and enthusiast.

At the end of the day, I was thrilled to bring home a new tote bag designed by Mustard Beetle Handmade. The tote features artist Elizabeth Jean’s gorgeous brush and ink work. We had a lovely conversation about ink and brushwork – a challenging medium which I also love – and I spent the ride home looking  (marveling) at the detail and beauty of the design (for more info and a link to the Mustard Beetle Etsy shop, see #2 in my list of Memorable Makes below).

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Brush and ink design by Mustard Beetle Handmade

If you are interested in some Renegade craft vendor highlights, read on, friend. And if you have participated in fairs or sold your wares, I would love to hear a bit of your story – how and when did you decide to get started crafting on a larger scale? What brought you to make that transition?

Wishing you a week of very merry making.  


The Handmade Habit list of Memorable Makes

In the spirit of support and spreading the word, I decided to compile the following list, in no particular order. I did not take pictures of wares and merch (forgive the block of text), but direct links to vendor sites are below.

1. Cameron Oehler (1337motif.com) combines the analog with the digital in his video game-inspired wooden objects, bringing together game nerds and woodworking enthusiasts. His merchandise includes Space invaders coasters, a beautiful Megaman cutting board, and other handmade wooden pixel art inspired by classic games (Mario, Pac-Man, and Zelda among them). His woodwork earrings made me want to become an earring-wearer again!

2. If you visit the Etsy shop of Madison, WI-based Mustard Beetle (etsy.com/shop/mustardbeetle), you’ll find screen and giclee prints, wall hangings, cards, and tote bags, all bearing her beautiful and stunningly detailed brushwork designs – intricate illustrations of plant and animal life (bouquets, birds, butterflies, deer and more). There is something so alive in the designs – the images pulse with the colour, life and energy of both her gestural brush work and the life forms they portray. Beautiful.

3. Heartell Press (heartellpress.com) is the work of woodblock printer Rachel Kroh. In the busy and bustling venue, I found her woodblock prints and stationery created a beautiful space of calm. The lines and contours of her prints seemed to reveal the labour intensive process of hand carving itself. Many of her prints deal with themes of love, gratitude, change, and finding spaces of peace and beauty in the everyday.

4. As a novice weaver, I was naturally interested in the Loome (theloome.com), a multi-functional hybrid craft tool for lovers of all things string. This curious sling-shot-shaped, notched hand tool can be used to make “pom poms, tassels, small weavings and a range of friendship bracelets and cords.” It’s an interesting device that recalls the process of making fork flowers (which I have never tried) or the mysterious and minimal lucet, which produces cord from any material (I have not tried the lucet, either, but it also looks fascinating).

5. Roaring Softly (etsy.com/shop/roaringsoftly) is the TV- and movie-inspired Etsy shop of Tyler Feder. Her illustrations are like love letters to Netflix, or an incredibly well-cataloged collection of favourite TV moments and characters in the form of ‘food lists’ and ‘mood charts’ – fellow fans will recognize these right away. References to Parks and Recreation, Gilmore Girls, Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development – my end-of-day TV faves. 🙂

6. Oh, hello friend (ohhellofriend.com) is the jewelry and stationery design brand of Danni Hong, offering cards, prints, and other everyday-staples with an unabashedly inspirational bent, i.e. gold-printed greeting cards that read “You’re Legit.” Instant uplift.

7. Loopy Mango yarn (loopymango.com) is hand crafted in Key Largo from 100% merino wool. The company’s ‘Big Loop’ yarn is apparently the thickest available on the market. I will dream about this luxury yarn for nights to come. One day, when I win the lottery, I will purchase said yarn and knit myself an endless grey blanket.

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16 thoughts on “Chicago’s Renegade Craft Fair

  1. How did I not realize you’re in Chicagoland? We lived there (well, Naperville) from Jan 2000-July 2002 and I worked downtown for a while (right across the river from the train station on Wacker). My sister/cousin (long story) lives in North Edgebrook and one of her daughters & husband live in Wrigleyville. I wish we had lived there longer – two of my sons were under the age of 3 while we were there and my husband & I weren’t as adventurous as we could have been. Also, The Snowy Day is one of my all-time favorite books along with Whistle For Willy; I still have my copy from when I was a kid, and I got a few of Ezra Jack Keats other books for my boys.

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    1. Awesome to read about your Chicago/Naperville days, Madgeface! That area of the loop where you worked is really spectacular, too. Wow! How lovely that you also have family here – Chicago is a big city, but it’s a small world. 🙂 We are NW of downtown, near O’Hare, but I used to live in Hyde Park. I haven’t been too adventurous this year, either, but I thought the craft fair might be a start.

      I absolutely *love* that book (amazing you still have your copy). I remember being mesmerized by the paper illustrations. I will have to look up Whistle for Willy as I see we’re kindred readers. 😉 Looking forward to the next reindeer update.

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      1. As luck would have it, my sister/cousin is taking a surprise trip here to see me on Thursday! I may have to ask her to bring me a Chicago hot dog, a deep dish pizza, a really good steak, and an Italian beef sandwich. I didn’t explore geographically but I did go to Taste of Chicago & Taste of Naperville a few times while we were there!

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      2. Wonderful to hear she’s visiting! 🙂 Yes, it’s an incredible place for eats. I first tried giardiniera here, also Garrett’s popcorn! My pizza-life is now divided into two periods: “before” and “after” Chicago. I think some of the pizzerias even ship cross-country!

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    1. Yes! Oh, nostalgia – it always comes in twinges, doesn’t it? 🙂 After you told me about them, I got very curious. I will definitely give them a try. The legacy of the fork flower lives on. 🙂

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  2. Thanks for sharing photos and experiences from this event! I like the snow too! (I am fascinated – I never saw that special effect on a blog before!). Your new tote bag is great and thanks for the links to learn about the artists!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Tierney! It was a fun day. Yes, I’m not sure where the snow comes from (I don’t know how to turn it off!), but it turns out to be right for the season. 🙂

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  3. Oh woweee, look at this craft fair! I’ve just spent a very pleasant few minutes perusing some of your favourites from the sellers there – what cool stuff! And if you’re wanting to get into the handmade game yourself, my top tips are… Have a variety of items at a range of price points, and no more than 2-3 distinct “ranges” of things. If you load up your stall with EVERYTHING you can make, it seems to confuse people and they pass you by! For your first market, start small, or share with a crafty friend whose stuff complements yours. And if you can, check it out before you sign up… Get a feel for who is selling there, and (more importantly) who is shopping there!
    Now all you have to do is figure out what to make 😉 Good luck!

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    1. Thanks for reading and the top tips! Next to the crafting, craft fairs are slowly becoming one of my favourite things. Starting small and/or collaborating sounds like a really good move. So does having a select range of crafts at different price points (great idea and a very shopper-friendly one). I can see how moving in too many directions could be confusing for shoppers; I’ll have to overcome my desire to make all. the. things. Thanks so much for taking a moment to share some of your craft fair expertise! This makes a fair seem like a doable dream 🙂

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