happy sheep

The 2010 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
West Friendship, MD
May 1-2, 2010

While some sheep and wool festivals are slowly evolving into shopping malls for fiber enthusiasts, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival—now in its 37th year—still retains its strong agricultural roots. This event, always held the first full weekend in May, is very much about the entire life cycle of the animal, from birth to barbecue.

ready for judging

Shepherds from as far as California bring their animals for competition and sale. They come to be judged by the experts, mingle with their peers, and learn from their mentors. These are people whose lives are about caring for and breeding the very best of the best. This is their moment, and the excitement—and pressure—are palpable.

ready for judging ready for judging

Miss Maryland Lamb and Wool prepares the ribbons waiting for their turn

the sheep trailers were in the field out back, hidden from view and the winner is...

But it's also a time for knitters, spinners, felters, weavers, and anyone else who loves a good bag of wool. We, too, come to spend time with our peers, learn from our mentors, and mingle with people who share our common passion.

We gladly overindulge, testing tools, touching materials, and acquiring things we can't otherwise easily acquire. And finally at day's end we drag ourselves back to our cars, arms laden with bags, ears ringing, feet hurting, sunburned, hot, thirsty, and yet completely sated for another year. We're left with a lot to digest, both literally and figuratively.

Each of us comes with unique priorities and leaves with different memories. Some of us engage in high-stakes competitive shopping, others have a more laissez-faire attitude. Here are my impressions of what some knitters and spinners were seeing, doing, and buying at the festival.

Breeds Galore
For wool fans, this was the place to see and touch sheep breeds. It felt as if someone transformed my book into a three-dimensional scratch-and-sniff playground—Coopworth, Romney, Teeswater, Shetland, Icelandic, Border Leicester, you name it, they were there.

Solitude SolitudeMy happiest wool find was Solitude, a working sheep farm in Western Loudon County, Virginia. Working with other area farmers, they collect premium fleeces and transform them into breed-specific millspun yarns that are then either sold natural or in a lovely palette of naturally dyed colors.

Solitude Solitude What's most remarkable about these yarns is that they have been spun to mimic the breed's natural crimp pattern, in weights and plies that match that breed's behavior perfectly. They had an exceptional Icelandic yarn whose soft hand and luminous halo would astonish anyone who's only used the traditional Lopi-style Icelandic. Their Border Leicester/Leicester Longwool positively glowed, and I still regret not buying a skein or two of their perfectly poofy yet well-balanced Dorset/Suffolk sock yarn.

Bottom line: If you want to experience millspun, breed-specific wools as they were meant to be spun, bookmark Solitude and check back often.

Hand-Dyers Everywhere

Brooks Farm Yarn
There's a lot of hand-dyed yarn at this show. After a while it tends to blur into one big furry mass of recycled Christmas decorations, with strong saturated solids, semisolids, and rainbow hues as far as the eye can see. Among the exceptions were the perennial favorite Brooks Farm Yarn, whose gemlike tones always combine perfectly with their voluptuous skeins.

Miss Babs
Indie phenom Miss Babs made her debut at the show, and her booth was suitably swamped all weekend. Hundreds upon hundreds (even thousands?) of skeins jammed the silver metal shelves that made up her display. Each was suspended from a little plastic hook on the hank's label, making it easy and orderly to dig deep into the shelf without causing a spill. The majority of colors were semisolids, although some, especially among the sock yarns, combined two similar or contrasting hues. She had some fairly standard Merino yarns as well as a delicious 65% cashmere/35% silk called Sojourn and a not-quite-lace-weight blend of Merino and Silk suitably called Yet.

the Spirit Trail Fiberworks booth
And over at the Spirit Trail Fiberworks booth, I spent a good deal of time with fellow Knitter's Review friends while Jen revealed her new luxury yarn, Birte. The plump, squishy yarn combines 75% superwash Merino, 15% cashmere, and 10% Bombyx silk in a well-rounded three-ply formation that knits up at 5 to 6 stitches per inch on US 4-6 needles.

Testing Tools
Fiber festivals offer a rare opportunity to experiment with different kinds of spinning wheels, spindles, and needles that our local shops may not otherwise carry. This is particularly useful for wheels and needles that carry a high price tag. Several vendors told me that wheel sales were generally down, but hand spindles and high-end needles were flying off the shelves.

the HansenCrafts miniSpinner
HansenCrafts generated quite the excitement with its clever little miniSpinner. This electric spinning wheel (or e-spinner, as they call it) is graceful, efficient, perfectly calibrated, and a work of beauty. It weighs four pounds and fits into a shoebox. What more could the traveling spinner want?

Signature Needle Arts
Signature Needle Arts was there with boxes and boxes of the long-awaited circular needles, packaged up and ready to go. They also had piles of DPNs and single-pointed straights in every possible tip/finial combination. Because these needles sell at a premium and aren't easily available in stores, the booth had a steady stream of people eager to try swatching with them.

Sheila Ernst talking about her glass needles
Meanwhile out in one of the barns Michael and Sheila Ernst did swift business with their flameworked glass knitting needles—keepsake circulars, DPNs, and single-pointed straights that also sell at a premium but are guaranteed to last a lifetime. Again, these are exactly the kinds of things you'd want to try before buying, and, thanks to this festival, that's exactly what people were able to do.

just one row of facilities
With more than 250 vendors on site, I've only scratched the surface in terms of highlights. Also at hand were buttons, pewter jewelry, brooms and baskets, woven fabrics, pottery, Celtic jewelry, prints and paintings, plants and seeds, dyestuffs, sheepskin products, and even commercially manufactured cutlery—not to mention the most impressive array of port-a-potties.

playing ball while the parents shopped
I saw men in kilts, lambs in halters, women in giant floppy hats, and countless kids being led around in high-tech strollers. I spotted colorful tattoos and brightly colored knitted shorts, grilled lamb burgers and deep-fried corn dogs, kids playing catch on the grass, and nervous sheep being groomed to perfection. It was a weekend to end all weekends.

Tent City

making the rounds
As successful as this year's event was—and in spite of stifling heat and humidity that made the crowded barns unbearable at times—there were palpable differences from previous years. The police and emergency crews were much more visible, and the Fire Marshall forced some significant changes.

Tents all had to be made of flame-retardant materials and spaced in far more open configurations. This meant that many of the outdoor vendors—including Brooks Farm—were relocated to a flat, shadeless gravel spot where cars used to park. Meanwhile, many of their long-occupied spaces were occupied by other vendors, just not them. It was a mystery whose underlying politics are unimaginably tricky, I'm sure.

As a result of this move, however, many attendees missed the new area entirely, aided perhaps by the row of parked emergency vehicles that hid the tents from view for most of Saturday. By Sunday, the area had been unaffectionately dubbed "tent city."

Despite the much more visible police presence, several thefts occurred over the weekend. Valuable jewelry, prints, and knitted samples all went missing. In the last few years, theft has become a significant problem for fiber events around the country. Samples and class supplies have been stolen from under teachers' noses, wheels have been lifted from locked rooms, and single socks—single mis-matched socks!—have been slipped out of vendor booths. I consider it an unfortunate byproduct of our success and increased visibility. But the bottom line is that we should practice as much caution at these events as we do in the rest of our daily lives.


the crowds
This entirely volunteer-run festival has definitely faced its own growing pains. Some of its softer, more human elements have been lost along the way. Gone are the deep-fried Twinkies and the earnest young Boy Scouts in full garb directing traffic. Actually the Boy Scouts are still there, but the heavy traffic duty has been handed over to state police officers in full uniform with impenetrable black sunglasses and grim expressions. Likewise, even the festival teachers are no longer guests at the organizers' homes; they are placed in hotels. Inevitable signs of growth, but changes nonetheless.

bye until next year!
Maryland is a landmark of the sheep and wool world. It's the Superbowl of fiber events, the TED and James Beard Awards all rolled up into one fantastic, overwhelming weekend. It's something everybody should experience at least once in their lifetime.

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