Thursday, May 26, 2011

Kelli Wefenstette of Greenie Bean Recycle

This week, I caught up with Kelli Wefenstette, creator of Greenie Bean Recycle, and co-founder of the UrbanFolk Circuit, which has been holding craft market shows monthly in Chicago since October 2010. I ran into her at the Handmade Market this Winter, and was immediately drawn to her handmade items that incorporated used tee shirts, bed sheets and vintage fabrics.
Kelli recently met me in a coffeshop, and it seemed there was barely a moment when she wasn't smiling or laughing about what she does. She exudes a youthful passion for her ventures, while explaining that she's become a veteran of working craft shows, and is quickly honing her expertise at organizing them as well.

Tell me a bit about the things you've been making and selling...
I started Greenie Bean in the Summer of 2007, and I started out by making totebags out of old t-shirts. I had just come out of college, had all this time on my hands, just started making my own patterns, and was buying new fabric. But within the first month, I was inspired to go to a thrift store and realized I had so many options for vintage, funky materials - bed linens, and shirts at my fingertips. Within a couple months, it evolved into me making the bags from recycled materials, and I very quickly realized that this could also be part of my activism, or my 'craftivism'. So then I also began making recycled book journals, and then I recently began selling my vegan laundry soap. Everything else I categorize into my trinket category, like buttons, record bowls, and lavender and peppermint sachets.

Do you live off of your income from this, or do you have another gig?
I do have another job, I'm a nanny full time, 8-5, five days a week. I don't live off the income from Greenie Bean, but it has been totally self-sustaining, which is the most important thing to me.

And tell us about Urban Folk Circuit - what it is and does.
It's an idea that's been in the making for years, and I've always wanted to run something on my own. Last Summer, I connected with a crafter, Jessica Duff, of Milton & Margies, who makes recycled candles, and I was at a show with them, and I said, "you guys, I want to start a craft show", and it probably helped that the one we were at wasn't going so well [chuckles], so we were feeling pretty inspired. So it took off, and we hosted our first one in October, and quickly decided this is something we could do every month.

And I have to point out something which I think is vital to our success. Having worked crafts shows in Chicago for three years - I sold at more than 20 shows just last year - and so many of those have been around the same neighborhood, and after a while that market is tapped, and they are not that excited about craft anymore. So we've been trying to reach all neighborhoods. It's also the only craft show that's year-round.  Most other shows are concentrated from June to December, but we want crafters to get an income all year round. So the crafters and the public know the Folk Circuit is coming every month, and create more opportunities for sales. I'm just constantly thinking about how we can provide them with more and more opportunities to be successful.

What criteria do you think qualifies someone as an Indie Maker, and what disqualifies others?
This can be a very loaded question. From the maker side, I would personally define it as making something from scratch. The loaded side of it, coming from an organizers point of view, when you're jurying all these applications and you have all these artists creating jewelry, for instance, and you have someone who just strings beads together, versus somebody who is a metalsmith, and is creating all the materials for their product. That's where the loadedness comes in. It becomes a fine line to walk, where the maker side of me says that anything you're making by hand is handmade, but the issue is, are you just buying parts and assembling them, or making everything yourself? There's definitely a gray area there. A friend who organizes markets has recently had to put a more defining line on this, and said that at least 75% of your product has to be made by you.

That's a good point, because I've seen stuff that people call handmade, where they buy a readymade object, and just....put a bird on it!
[laughs] Take tote bags for instance, I do alot of shows, and I make these tote bags, using materials that aren't tote bags and construct them from my own pattern, and then sell them for maybe $20. But then I have a person next to me who just bought a bag wholesale from somewhere, put a screenprint on it, and sells it for $10. When you're in the handmade community, you have those creative types at your disposal. If you needed a stamp, or business cards, or cloth bags, if you asked me what you wanted, I could probably find you three people in Chicago who makes them. The more I get involved in this, the less excusable it is.

Were there any business models or individuals who inspired you?
When I first started, I didn't even know there were people making things. I had moved to Chicago from a small town, and thought, "I wish there was some place in town where I could sell these!" But then I discovered Etsy, and the craft markets, and saw that there's alot of people doing this. That's when I realized, "Oh my god, you could make a living doing this!" I would say that the most inspiration has come from those people who have persevered, whether they're doing it full time or not, the fact that they've created a tangible business, they're the people who have made it seem worthwhile to keep going.

Is there someone who helps you?
My husband Jimmy definitely helps me transport things, carry things at all the shows. He's a good physical support [laughs]. He's also a great emotional support. He's never let me doubt myself. As for making stuff, he makes the record bowls, but everything else is made by me.

So do you think you could do this for very long if you weren't part of a supportive couple environment?
I've never thought about that. There's two ways to think about it. First, I'd have to say that I'm not sure I could sustain the interest. There's so many times when you get discouraged, but then Jimmy says, "so, this bad thing happened, but what about all these good things?" And then monetarily, I would say it's definitely true - the majority of crafters I know are being supported by a second income. But my craft has sustained itself, and I started it before I was married, but if I didn't have that second income, would I need that income? I'm not sure.

What do you like most about being a maker?
I've always been a maker. I was a Girl Scout forever, and my grandma taught me how to sew, and I've been sewing for alot of years. I just really like doing things with my hands, and the thought that I could be responsible for my own financial wellbeing as a result of something that I make or do is exciting.

What's some of the hardest parts of being an Indie Maker? 
You get really burnt out. There are times when I don't want to see another tote bag. And my sewing room at home has a door, and there are times where it'll stay shut for a month. Keeping myself inspired can be hard. I've said that I know tote bags are what I'm supposed to do, because I have a short attention span, and the fact that I've done them so long without becoming sick of it, says something [laughs].

What do you think is most unaffordable to get as an Indie Maker, as in material, tool, service, whatever?
Training or mentoring, and I think on the business aspect, it's hard to get legal advice in Chicago. I probably don't know one crafter who's doing everything 100% by the book, because it costs alot to have someone tell you every license or permit or form you're supposed to be doing. And those mistakes can be costly.

What turned out to be the easy or cheap things or services to get?
There are some useful public services. I did a four-session workshop with Jewish Vocational Services, and it cost $50 for a whole business boot camp. And if you've signed up for their classes, you also get free business counseling.

Was there any invaluable resource or service that you discovered?
I very quickly attached myself to other crafters, and whether they wanted to be friends with me or not, they really didn't have a choice [smirks]. I just soaked up all the information I could, and kept in touch with all of those artisans, and didn't hesitate to ask them any questions. Any time I have a question, whether it's about how to make something, or for business advice, my first stop is always another crafter. That has been an incredible resource.

Is there something you would do, if you had more time, money or resources?
Quit my job! [big grin] I fully believe that if I had the time to craft full-time, it would be a full-time business. I'd had a full-time job where I was exhausted at the end of the day. But then I quit that job, began nannying, which gave me more free time, and I was blogging more, able to use social media more, and making more stuff. I was able to increase my sales by 300%.

What do you think prevents alot of makers from being self-sufficient?
Not having a clear vision of what you want. And you don't have to have a 10-year plan, or a to-the-dollar business plan, but you have to know what you want out of it, and you have to reinvest what you get back into the business, both monetarily, and inspirationally. And you have to take risks - don't say you're not going to apply to a show that you feel is not your market, or it's too expensive. Find a way to make it accessible. If people thought of themselves as a successful business person, they would take more risks and reap more benefits.

What kind of things or services do you wish existed to help makers become self-sufficient?
In the craft community, we tend to put the very successful people on a pedestal, and I would love to see a way for those professionals - because in a lot of ways they are professionals - to meet your everyday crafters, and to develop a mentor relationship. It saddens me when I see people who have become successful say "I had to do everything myself, and I think you have to do everything yourself", when in reality, much of your success came from the support of the people that you're around. So if there was a forum for the professionals to meet other crafters, which I think would make it seem more attainable.

You can see Kelli's products, along with the work of other makers, 
at the next Urban Folk Circuit:

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