If festivals were friends, the New York Sheep and Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, New York, would be among my oldest and dearest.
The more years I go, the more familiar each part of the event becomes. Attending is as much about tradition and ritual as it is about discovering the new and unknown.
In 2011 I decided to walk through the show with the alphabet in mind, hoping to capture the spirit of the weekend beginning with the letter A and ending with a triumphant Z.
A is for artichokes, served stewed or deep-fried, and for the abundance of colorful apples heaped in baskets and sliced, baked, and served in bowls à la mode.
B is for books, which were stacked high atop long tables in the author’s signing area. In the company of many other fine writers—including Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, Lela Nargi, Gwen Steege, I launched my brand new book at the show.
C is for cheese, a slightly unexpected element of the New York Sheep and Wool Festival. In tents outside and in one of the main buildings, cheeses of all varieties and provenances—not just those made from sheep’s milk and not just from New York—were available for sampling and sale.
C is also for the giant, spectacular clouds that marched across the sky on Saturday and Sunday like sheep in need of a haircut.
D is for all the drop spindles that swirled and dangled from many a pair of hands throughout the weekend. The convenient portability of drop-spindles let people begin playing with their fiber purchases right away instead of waiting until they returned home to their wheels. These were made by Gilbert Gonsalves, who also makes the Robin spinning wheels.
E is for the Eveready Diner that’s now across the street from the fairgrounds. Open early, it’s the perfect place to get a hearty breakfast and strategize before venturing into the festival.
F is for felt, which was present in everything from bags and hats to coats, slippers, and intricate needle-felted miniature scenes. Julia Hilbrandt (shown here) premiered at Rhinebeck two years ago and remains my favorite maker of gorgeous felted bags with thick leather handles.
G is for guanaco, a cousin of alpaca whose fine undercoat rivals cashmere and vicuña in softness. Still River Fiber Millhas been working with a group in South America to process and market these most rare and luxurious fibers. I’d never seen guanaco millspun yarn before. Naturally, I stocked up.
H is for hats, a most spectacular display of which was visible in booths and on people’s heads. The rule of the weekend: the more flamboyant the hat, the better. Many were adorned with large colorful sequins.
I is for Iceland, the small island nation whose sheep produce a most lively and nuanced fiber. Icelandic sheep and wool were both well-represented at the festival. Frelsi Farm Icelandics is a favorite stop, offering some of the finest and truest representative fibers of the breed.
J is for Jacob, another unusual sheep breed that grows a coat of not one but two totally distinct kinds of fibers. Who can resist that face?
I could say K is for the thousands of knitters who filled the fairgrounds—or the kids they brought with them, or the knits they were all wearing. But no, K is for the rather confused kangaroos that were hopping around one area of the fairgrounds. Where were they, you ask? You’ll have to wait for the letter Z to find out.
L is for lopi, the traditional Icelandic wool sweaters that many wore to the festival. Here is Mel at the Red Maple Sportswearbooth modeling his own lopi creation.
L is also for leaves, whose brilliant fall colors were at their peak over the weekend; and for lamb, which was stewed, skewered, shredded, and served by a multitude of vendors.
M is for maple, which was offered up in the form of syrup, creamy butter, and—the most tantalizing of all—cotton candy.
N is for all the different kinds of natural dyes you could find at the festival—amazing things like fustic and myrobalan and pomegranate rinds that, when properly prepared, can turn fiber into the most gorgeous assortment of colors.
O is for ownership, a constant underlying theme. Serious commerce was taking place. People snatched up wheels and spindles, mountains of fiber and fleece and yarn, and yes, even sheep.
P is for pottery, including the quickly emptied shelves of pottery darling Jennie the Potter; and for popcorn, which everyone was carrying around in giant pillowy bags.
P is also for pumpkin artistry, featured not too far from the popcorn stand. And, for the carnivores in the group, P is also the preferred letter for parfait, but not the kind you may be expecting. One vender served tall plastic cups layered with mashed potatoes, different types of barbecue meat, and cole slaw, with a rib stuck on the side and topped with a cherry. Several people assured me it tasted far better than it looked.
R is for Rhinebeck, the town in which this festival takes place. It’s such an integral part of the event that most people refer to the festival simply as “Rhinebeck.”
During the festival weekend, Rhinebeck is totally overrun with fiber people. Hotels are all booked, restaurants full, and traffic stopped for miles around.
S is for a lot of things: sheep, shawls, spindles, socks, strollers, souvenirs. But perhaps the most prominent S at the show was security. Theft has become a serious problem at fiber festivals, especially among vendors after the gates close each night, and security had been visibly beefed up this year.
T is for tunis, one of the prettiest and oldest established sheep breeds in this country. It’s also appreciated for its mellow, easygoing disposition. I was sorely tempted to tuck this guy in the back seat of my rental car.
U is for upcycling, which involves taking materials and repurposing them into something of greater value than what they were before. Wellspring Farm was selling totes that incorporated pieces of colorful recycled feed bags. They were made in the U.S. by people whose textile manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas, with the ultimate goal of bringing some form of industry back into those communities hardest hit.
While the totes retailed for $20, if you were willing to add another zero to that price tag you could buy some upcycled clothing in the Fromm Designs booth. Here vintage sweaters were being cut, reshaped, and reconfigured into all types of unusual, stylish dresses, skirts, and accessories.
V is for vintage and all the knitting-themed gadgets and tchotchkes tucked among different booths. I counted no fewer than five yarn holders with the profile of a kitten playing with a skein of yarn.
I’d be a fool if I didn’t say that W is for wool—and it was, big time. Heaps of fleece were bagged and ready for sale, more fibers had been carded into batts or combed into top and spun into skeins distributed among hundreds of vendors. Throughout the weekend people could also watch a sheep being shorn. At one such demonstration, I heard a group of children erupt in squeals and giggles when the shearer finished and asked, “OK, who wants a haircut next?”
But W is also for wine, of which quite a few New York varieties were sampled and sold in the food barn. And W is also for the wireless Internet connection that had such a huge influx of connections trying to process credit-card charges that it—along with the cell phone signals—blipped in and out of service all weekend.
X is for all the xerophilous fibers being worn and sold throughout the weekend. (For those who don’t frequently play Scrabble, “xerophilous” means “able to withstand a lack of moisture.”)
As I hope you’ve already guessed, Y is unequivocally for all the glorious, textured, colorful incarnations of yarnthat were sold at the festival. Tens of thousands of skeins were tucked everywhere, on shelves and in bins, in barns and tents and trunks of waiting cars in the parking lot. The Briar Rose and Spirit Trail Fiberworks booths did swift business, as did first-timer Miss Babs. Sanguine Gryphon was the site of a veritable yarn scrummage both days. Immediately after the show Sanguine Gryphon announced its dissolution.
And Z? Believe it or not, a portable zoo was set up in the children’s area. It housed a few homesick primates and some other animals including these kangaroos, whose antics kept many an antsy child and bored spouse properly entertained.