Under the Big Sky: Big Sky Fiber Festival, Hamilton, Montana
June 14-16, 2013
by Rachel Potter
The Bitterroot Mountains loom behind a flat-fielded countryside dotted with grazing cattle, a few houses, and sign after sign for fishing and hiking areas. A bike trail runs parallel to the highway. Montana is a beautiful and diverse land, and the 45-mile stretch of Route 93 from Missoula to Hamilton is as good as any for indulging in my favorite music and imagining what I'll find at the Big Sky Fiber Arts Festival.
I'd never been down to the Ravalli County Fairgrounds. I stopped for directions, and the friendly gal behind the counter kindly directed me to take a left turn (down Fairgrounds Road, no less) about a half a mile down the road. Given that Montana rarely puts signs farther than at the gate of the event, I probably would have missed the turn.
Despite the various Missoulian tendencies I've picked up during my time in Montana, I'm still very much a New England girl. I still expect lines, parking so far away that the hike to the gate can count as my workout for the day, and the slow shuffling that goes with the crowds of the dense East. In the state with one of the lowest population densities, I quickly found parking and had a ticket for fair entry in a matter of minutes, all for a mere $5 (about which even this broke college kid can't complain too much).
Just left of the main arena of the grounds is a big building with a plain exterior. Inside, I saw a large open space with cement floors and plain walls. For a moment I felt a pang, could it be disappointment? Am I in the right spot? Is this it? It seemed smaller and less grand than I expected. It wasn't packed with eager festival goers rushing around; in fact, the space would have easily accommodated a few more vendors.
I looked to my right and saw bags and bags of sheep shearings from the preceding day's contest, ribbons proudly distributed over the tops of the wool. To my left: the first booth, which held a variety of yarns and homemade fudge. I'd come to the right place.
Let the wandering begin! As a fine member of the knitting community there was plenty of salivating and hand wandering to do. This may not be the biggest fiber festival, but plenty of hand-dyed skeins and bags of roving were around to caress and ogle.
I stared in awe at the spinning wheels of Montana's Q's Quality Wood Works. Even people who'd never spun in their lives could have appreciated the sheer beauty of the work.
At a both filled with skeins of uniquely textured and colored bulky yarn, a woman gave me the low-down: this skein on this size needle gets you this much fabric, displayed in a colorful scarf. She was Fiber Voodoo from Oregon. Moving down, Rocking L Alpacas was here from Victor, MT. From Colfax, WA, came Symphony for the Sheeps and Knaack Flack. I was amazed to find that people had driven a day or more to set up their booths to show off their wares here in Montana.
A dark-haired woman with a beautiful accent that I couldn't place greeted me at a booth filled with various grades of alpaca raised at the Black Wolf Ranch in St. Ignatius, Montana. I also spotted a woman from Bozeman with a bison yarn, felt, and roving business—one that started out simply from knitting a few bison scarves for a friend.
My eye caught the sheepskins hanging along the back of another booth. I touched them happily as Lee Bates of JerryLee Farm from Viola, Idaho, told me about her business, which has been in operation since 1976. The hats she brought, she told me, were just the tip of the iceberg.
After finally feeling my way down a row, I stumbled on Judy, here from her farm in Centerville, Utah, where she raises Rambouillet sheep.
She greeted me with "feel free to fondle!" as she sat comfortably in her chair with a project I've never seen before. "It's Locker Hooking," and she explained how it was done, and then invited me to sit in her chair, to hook a few loops. Needless to say, I picked up a new hobby.
I met many people eager to talk and share with fellow fiber enthusiasts. And even if you start to stress at the thinning of your wallet, you can stop by the $1-a-minute massage booth. Or if animal therapy is what you need, the animals are even more eager to greet you, from the angora rabbits to Shetlands, the llamas, the Billy goats Billy Bob and Billy Joe, or the irresistible Suri alpacas.
But even for those without needles in their hands and yarn in their hearts, you're in luck. The $5 admission fee also entitles you to the farmer's market.
It's small, but you can easily marvel over the handmade saddles, cowboy boots, and traditional Wyoming attire, or for those with a hunger in their hearts, the smells of funnel cakes, burgers, and freshly popped kettle corn, are ever present in the air and the lines are not too long.
In the main arena you'll find a completely different breed of entertainment: the Montana Mule Days, the state's largest mule and donkey show. It just so happened that I wandered in as they were starting a game of polo, but not an ordinary game; this was played by the rough and muscled cowboys of the west, dressed in drag, riding mules. Only in Montana.
The land of the big sky is the one place you can stumble into and, in one day, eat fair food, indulge in half a pound of Merino roving, buy a saddle, pet a very friendly alpaca, go for a hike, go for a bike ride, find numerous micro breweries (if that fits your fancy), and hear a story that ends with, "And the saints rejoiced in their winter underwear."
This beautiful place, so appropriately named the Treasure State, is the place to be if you are looking for an adventure, for opportunities to fill a day. Whether you come for the mules or the fiber, the outdoors or the beer and food, you'll stumble on something amazing.
If you find yourself in the Treasure State at the end of June, if you have an itch in your fingers and an adventure in your heart, maybe I'll see you there. I'll certainly be back to the fiber festival next year to see what adventures are to be had.
About the author
Rachel Potter is a New England gal who ventured to Montana to study CSD and to see what the west had to offer. Avid biker, avid knitter, and avid Missoulian, she is also the proud owner of some gorgeous new Merino roving.
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