a relaxing sheep Our First Audio Report from the 2006 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
Howard County Fairgrounds
West Friendship, MD
May 6-7, 2006

Listen to the sights and sounds from the festival fairgrounds.
Play it now!


Audio Transcript

For those of you who are stuck with a slow dial-up connection or don't have a way to listen to audio files, read along below. You'll also find photos from the event, plus a few extras that didn't get into the audio report. I hope you enjoy it!

It's six o'clock in the morning, and Iím catching a bus to Boston where I'll fly to Baltimore and rent a car. My destination: the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland, for the 33rd annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.

I've been to this event several times already, but I still get butterflies the minute I board my plane. People ask what Maryland is like, and I can only reply, heaven. For two days you're surrounded by people who love this stuff as much as you do. People who understand why you're buying 12 skeins of yarn with no idea what you'll do with it—and who'll most likely do the same.

This year was to be no exception. According to festival organizers, they had more vendors this year than ever before in festival history, occupying every free inch of space on the grounds. The weather was perfect, the sheep were plentiful, and, with the exception of a few aggressive "power shoppers" and reluctant spouses and children, everyone was in a great mood.

setting up in the big buildingThe festival officially opens on Saturday, but I arrived a day early—ostensibly to help my friend Jennifer set up the Spirit Trail Fiberworks booth. But let's face it. I really just wanted to experience that secret delight of being backstage the night before a very big show, meeting the cast and getting a sneak peek of what was ahead.

By the time I arrived, setup was in full swing. With the speed and precision that comes from having done this a lot, vendors backed up their trucks, wheeled in their goods, set up their displays, and finished with time to chat with their vendor friends—many of whom they'll meet again and again as they do the East Coast summer fiber festival circuit.

Friday wanderersThe Howard County Fairgrounds are set on a narrow patch of beautiful farmland bordering I-70, the major east-west artery that runs from Baltimore all the way to Cove Fort, Utah.

Two large rolling fields double as festival parking. On Friday, the place was still pretty quiet, but I knew from experience that cars would be streaming in for miles in either direction the next day.

traffic entering the fairgroundsSaturday was perfect. Although previous weather forecasts predicted rain, the sky was clear blue and the air a most-comfortable 75 degrees. The good weather, plus a prominent mention on National Public Radio, brought the crowds in droves.

Vendors were instructed to be at their posts by 8am, even though the festival didn't officially begin until 9am. Sure enough, by 8:15 people were spilling through the front gates and quickly hitting their favorite destinations.

It's every knitter for herself!! The Koigu booth was a clear target. By 8:30, the line had formed, people were swarming over boxes, bags, and heaps of brightly colored Koigu oddballs and mill ends, all of which were being sold at a significant discount.

I counted more than 30 hanks balanced precariously in one of the large baskets Koigu provided for just the occasion. The woman holding it had a gleeful look of defiance that said, "I'm buying 30 hanks of mismatched yarn in small skeins, and I'm proud of it!"

In another barn, Illinois vendor The Fold was overwhelmed with knitters snatching skein after skein of Socks That Rock, a simple two-ply superwash merino sock yarn from Blue Moon Fiber Arts. Before noon, they had sold their entire stock of it—all 800 skeins.

And so it continued, as other festival favorites were hit.

stocking up on souvenirs The festival souvenir barn was swamped, with a line that streamed halfway to the next building and didn't let up for hours. People were eager to get their T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, baseball caps, aprons, baby bibs, mousepads, keychains, pins, posters, you name it. It's a bit of a festival tradition, and many people wear previous years' shirts as a sort of badge of honor to show just how long they've been coming.

Brooks Farm Fiber, the Texas favorite with its silky soft, warm-colored mohairs and mohair blends, was also quickly relieved of its best colors. Hatchtown Spindles also sold out quickly, with many people returning for their fifth, sixth, or even tenth spindle from miracle wood-turner Jim Childs. And even my friend's Spirit Trail Fiberworks, which has only been at the festival for two years now, soon sold almost all its sock yarn.

In fact, if I had to associate one knitting trend with this year's festival, I'd say it's a tie between socks and lace shawls.

The fleece area was another hot target. A line had already formed when I got there at 8am, and by the time I got back a few hours later, all the prime fleeces had been scored. Large clear plastic garbage bags filled with fleece spilled out from row after row of tables, with narrow aisles making the crowded navigation almost comical—were it not for the frantic, competitive feeling in the air.

These people were here for good fleece and they weren't going to let anything—not even you—stand in their way. I stood and chatted with one woman about her finds, with our hands firmly planted on our own fleeces. Yet several times, people shooed our hands away so they could reach inside the bag and feel the fleece.

Boundaries defended, my new friend managed to come away with two gorgeous fleeces.

No use trying to rush in this crowdBy noon, the narrow aisles and walkways had jammed to capacity with people ambling at the sort of distracted, bovine pace that comes from complete and total sensory overwhelm. You have to let go and join the slow pace or you'll go nuts. And trust me, you will eventually get where you want to go.

ice cream

Lunchtime at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival is priceless experience.

kettle corn coated with sweetness

Most of what youíll find in the way of food has either been deep-fried or extruded from a soft-serve ice cream machine.

and, lest we forget the perennial favorite, fried Twinkies!

Let's see, you have fried potatoes, fried Twinkies, fried Oreos...

funnel cakes with blueberry topping...and of course my perennial favorite, funnel cakes—a kind of lightweight crepe batter that's poured through a tiny spout into a deep-fat fryer, lifted out when it's golden brown, then sprinkled with powdered sugar and served to you piping hot on a napkin-lined plate.

Now the trick with funnel cakes is to eat them before they get cold, and before you see just how much grease has seeped into that napkin.

mmm, I love a good barbecue!But in talking about food, I haven't mentioned one of the other major ingredients you'll find at the festival. As you walk through the fairgrounds, a tantalizing scent and sizzling sound of grilled meat hits you and lures you in.

But there's a catch. The meat being grilled comes from the same kind of four-legged animals you were petting in the livestock barns not five minutes earlier. That's right, I'm talking about LAMB. Grilled to perfection, but lamb nonetheless.

baaaaaaaaaWhile others went for the gyros, or "jyroes" as they're pronounced in these parts, I settled for a plate of thinly sliced pit-roasted lamb with baked beans and cole slaw. This, plus a soda, cost $15. Festival food is never cheap.

Vendortown, USAThroughout the crowded, noisy day, I found myself retreating to a grassy slope behind one of the largest livestock barns. It faced a narrow line of parked trucks, some of which had campers set up, others with tents, all facing onto a small tree-filled brook.

Birds chirped, wind ruffled the leaves, and the happy sound of sheep never left the background. It was the perfect place to regroup and plan my next assault.

Some of the KR lunchersFor the past few years we've had an informal Knitter's Review picnic on the grass right inside the fairgrounds. This year we had a lovely group of about a dozen people who gathered under a shady tree and swapped stories of their finds.

More of the KR lunchers A few people had just arrived at the fairgrounds, and as each of us showed our bounty and talked about how quickly things were selling out, you could see them get increasingly anxious until they finally gave up and said, "I've gotta get in there!" and ran off to stalk their prey.

A precocious sheep leans in for another scratchWhat I love most about this festival is that, although itís about yarn and fibers and pretty garments, itís also a serious agricultural event. There were as many barns of sheep as there were of vendors, and almost wherever you go, youíre serenaded by the constant bleating of sheep.

Leading the sheep to be groomedTeenagers stroll through the fairgrounds with blue ribbons pinned to their back jeans pocket, and later you can see them leading their prize-winning sheep back to the barns or to the trailers behind the fairgrounds.

Livestock equipment

Vendors sell all sorts of paraphernalia, from feeding stations to electric fences to medications. Carcass-carving and lamb-cooking demonstrations round out the cycle of life, all of which is made brutally honest right here.

Sheep being lined up for inspection A large crowd was gathered in an open barn for the sheep judging—ironically located right next to one of the largest barbecue booths. While the air was rich with the scent of grilled lamb, breed by breed of perfectly manicured sheep were led into the ring.

Their breeders would scratch their necks to keep them calm while simultaneously fussing over the animal's posture to get it just right. Pushing the legs back, sideways, or forward, lifting the head up, tucking the rear in, doing everything they can to make it demonstrate perfect conformity with the breed standards.

A judge with a microphone walks the audience through his judging process, explaining the positive and negative traits of each sheep. Quite often the sheep that have just been judged or are about to be judged are tied to the fence at the end of the barn, nervously baaaaaaing and rubbing their cheeks up against the ropes to try and get loose.

musicians at work and play Elsewhere, live music spills out into the crowd. In one area, two fiddles dueled with a guitar, bass, and banjo. Just a few barns up, a man in a kilt starts playing a bagpipe. And over by the spiral-cut deep-fried potato booth, another group performed to a mixed crowd of adults and children seated at chairs and dancing on the grass.

sunny SundaySunday was the same, only cooler, calmer, more perfect. Now that the power-shoppers were done and all the "star" booths picked clean, people could relax and really enjoy themselves. Children rolled down the grassy slopes, people wandered while licking their rapidly melting soft-serve ice-cream cones.

do sheep count sheep to go to sleep? Back in the livestock barns, exhausted sheep lay in their hay-lined stalls, panting from the heat and managing to avoid the outstretched hands of curious children. In one stall, a prospective buyer discusses a lamb with its breeder. In another stall, a sheep protests the removal of her sister.

bye bye black sheepAnd then, just as quickly as it began, the festival was over, and I was walking back to my car, leaving behind the fairgrounds for another year.

Extra Shots from the Festival

hey, where'd everybody go?

On Friday during festival setup, this worried little lamb stood guard in the back of his truck, calling for its owner to return and take him inside.

no more Koigu!
The Koigu booth after it'd been picked clean of everything but the samples. A very different sight from the day before!

pure fiberly perfection

Anne Grout's paper-thin First-Place, Best-in-Show, and Special Award-winning spindle-spun handknit shawl. This was a truly stunning work!


Millie Sass' adorable sheep basket with handspun yarn.

an elegant capelet

Margo Duke's hand-felted, crochet-embellished capelet.

yarns at DZined

The DZined booth had surprisingly soft, brightly colored yarns made of hemp blended with other fibers.

Just Our Yarn

And finally, my favorite new find of the show was Just Our Yarn, a two-woman company with utterly decadent blends of cashmere, silk, angora, and camel down, all hand-dyed in sumptuous colors.

arrow Talk about this event in our forums
arrow Return to the events calendar