To the outside observer, fiber festivals may seem to be all about commerce. At these festivals people fall in love with skeins of unusual yarn and bags of intriguing fiber, buy them, stuff them into their cars (with perhaps a sheep or two) and drive away, happy.
But this is only part of the story. Fiber festivals are also about finding community and celebrating a common passion. And it is from that perspective that Joanne Seiff sets out to document the fiber festival tradition and culture.
Gathering the Gatherings
Seiff has cherry-picked a selection of U.S. fiber festivals—from Maryland to New Hampshire, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, and New York. Many more festivals exist, but the 10 Seiff chose will give the reader a good sense of what's out there, both thematically and geographically. She also includes sheep shearing as its own event, detailing what it's like to visit a sheep farm on shearing day.
Joanne traveled to each festival to collect stories while her husband Jeff (a biology professor with a Ph.D. in zoology) took pictures of the people, places, things, and animals that they encountered on their journey. His shots of sheep are lovely—a notable accomplishment considering the light and space limitations of most festival environments.
An Editorial Challenge
Fiber festivals tend to follow a common path of workshops, demonstrations, and vendors, perhaps highlighted by a sheep-to-shawl contest, fleece judging, and lots of festival foods. Having written about them myself, I know the challenge of identifying and describing the unique elements of each festival. Here the risk of repetition is even greater because all the festival descriptions come one after the next.
Yet Seiff succeeds, painting lovely and evocative portraits of her festivals and touching upon little details that you'd only know from being there—from the Indian pudding at the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival to the restroom attendants at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. Reading these descriptions not only gives you a good sense of being there, but it'll also prepare you for the day you finally do attend each festival.
The Rest of the Book
While the festival write-ups may compose the thematic heart of this book, they are actually only one component of the editorial. Seiff fills this book with helpful how-tos and informational tidbits that relate, peripherally but significantly, to the fiber festival ethos.
One chapter explains how you can wash a raw fleece by hand or in a washing machine. Another provides a brief history of the Navajo-Churro sheep and tracks the weaving traditions of New Mexico. You'll also find instructions on how to spin for speed and how to Andean ply. She even shows how you can make a bottom-whorl spindle out of nothing more than an apple and knitting needle.
The Other Rest of the Book
But even here, we're still missing a major component of the book. So major, in fact, that the publisher chose to make it the focus of the book's subtitle: "Knit, Crochet, Spin, and Dye More Than 25 Projects Inspired by America's Festivals." Some of the patterns were designed by Seiff, while designers contributed others.
Among these you'll find an alpaca ruana from Annie Modesitt, a thick-and-thin baby ensemble from Chrissy Gardiner, an entrelac polo sweater from Shelia January, fingerless mitts from Jennifer Heverly, an Aran skirt from Shirley MacNulty, and pretty lace from JoLene Treace and Rosemary Hill. Crochet is also represented in the patterns, as well as rug-hooking and felting.
The projects use an interesting choice of yarns. Some are trusted fiber festival favorites, such as Brooks Farm Yarn, Tongue River Farm, Spirit Trail Fiberworks, and Green Mountain Spinnery. Others call for yarns more likely found at your LYS than at a fiber festival. (Publishers frequently encourage authors to use nationally distributed yarns in their books, partly to make the knitter's job easier and partly to support the yarn stores they hope will sell the book.) And one vest pattern, as well as the hand-dyeing tutorial by Adam Church, use a yarn from Knit Picks that you won't find at festivals or at your LYS.
Seiff writes clearly and simply, evoking people and places without delving into the unnecessarily ornate or unnecessary verbal embellishment. Her decision to write the book in the present tense can make things a little confusing at times. You're not sure if she's speaking about her particular trip to that festival or about what happens at every festival—in one such case you could mistakenly assume that Stephanie Pearl-McPhee always gives a festival talk on Sunday at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.
Likewise, although the book is based on Seiff's journeys to these festivals, she tends to keep her personality well on the perimeter of the discussion, making the book read more like a travel guide than travel narrative.
While a lot of people have mentioned sheep and wool festivals in other books, this is the first entire book dedicated to the sheep and wool festival ethos. Considering the history and popularity of these events, I'm rather surprised it took so long for a book like this to appear—and I'm happy it did. Joanne Seiff gives us a heart-felt introduction not only to these beloved events but to the greater spirit, ambiance, and creative culture that helps them thrive.