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from Maryland to Indianapolis

Inside Maryland Sheep and Wool and TNNA

They couldn't be more different. One takes place at a fairgrounds along the side of a freeway. The other, in the sterile halls of a convention center. But the two events represent the opposite ends of a spectrum we all know and love: that of producer and product.

When the 2014 dates were announced and it was clear that our biggest trade show, TNNA, would happen the same week as our biggest festival, Maryland Sheep and Wool, people were forced to choose. The closer we got to the weekend, the more I realized I couldn't miss either one. So I did both.

Maryland Sheep and Wool
The weather was perfect—sunny, breezy, and just cool enough to invite wool fondling, which is a rarity for Maryland in May.

When it was all said and done, an estimated 50,000 people passed through the Howard County Fairgrounds on Saturday and Sunday to partake in the festival's 41st year. I was there for Saturday alone, and I can tell you that an hour and a half before the fairgrounds were supposed to open, a steady stream of traffic was already making its way into the parking area. Which is to say the event is as popular as ever.

sheep being shown

I've been going to Maryland for 14 years. At first, it was all about the yarn and fiber. But over time, my focus has shifted more toward the source of it all: the sheep. They filled multiple barns, spilling out into walkways and into the show ring. They gave their fleeces to the shearing demonstrations and their nimble selves to the sheepdog demonstrations.

Others, dispatched earlier, unwittingly provided fodder for the countless charcoal grills in constant operation throughout the weekend. They were served up as pit lamb, gyros, and shish-kebabs—all washed down with big plastic tubs of lemonade or homemade root beer.

A few vignettes stand out in my memory.


Prepping the sheep for show
My friend Kei, who regularly works the fleece sale, directed me to a quiet corner of a barn where Lee Langstaff of Shepherd's Hey Farm was painstakingly grooming one of her sheep for the show.

crimp at its best
We walked down another aisle to meet Geoff Ruppert, who invited us into a pen where a pair of Corriedale ewes lounged in a sunbeam.

He slowly undid one of their coats, pulled apart the fleece along her side, and revealed a breahtakingly long and exquisite crimp.

He explained that shearing at his farm takes several weeks because he does the shearing himself, one sheep at a time.

I learned later that this same sheep ended up winning the Supreme Fleece for the festival. Meanwhile, Shepherd's Hay Farm ended up taking Champion Natural Colored Longwool Ram and Best Fleece in Breed, along with several other ribbons.

The show ring may be my favorite thing about this event. It's where you get to watch shepherds in their element, showing off their very best to their peers. Without these people, we would have no wool. We would have no nuance of fiber, no continuity of breeds other than the most generic. These are the people who work tirelessly so we may cast on and enjoy.

Her first blue ribbon
This young girl just won her first blue ribbon for her Border Leicester ewe. Her brother (right) perched on the fence until the judging was over and then rushed in to congratulate her.

Her mother (also showing sheep at the show) helped her pin the blue ribbon to her back jeans pocket (another festival tradition). It was deeply moving to witness so many traditions pass from one generation to the next.

But it would be false to suggest that the show is just about sheep. It's about commerce. This year, 275 vendors—that's not a typo—set up in outdoor tents, barns, outbuildings, and the main exhibition hall. You could find everything from hand-dyed yarns to carded and combed fiber, fleeces, woven baskets, hats, jewelry, books, needles, looms and wheels, pottery, paintings, wooden benches, and even brooms.


Stairway to paradise
On Sunday morning I flew to Indianapolis to catch the tail end of TNNA, the trade show where yarn makers and store owners converge to do business for the season.

This neutral territory offers invaluable mingling, connecting, and networking. It also functions like long-range weather radar, showing what weather patterns are due to hit yarn stores, and the industry in general, in the coming months.

Change was afoot this year. Not only did TNNA move from June to May, but it also moved from Columbus to Indianapolis. The shift in venue helped level the playing field a bit, with nobody really knowing where to stay, go, or eat. We figured it all out together as newcomers. Most of us had very low expectations and left pleasantly surprised.

Despite the prevalence of cell phones and the constant urgings to feed social media, I preferred to keep it old-school and respect the official TNNA rule: no photos on the show floor. Instead, I'll give you a high-level look at what I saw and what's coming down the pike. Expect in-depth reviews of many of these products in the coming months.

First off, watch for more colorful needles. Denise Interchangeables has added bright primary colors to its kits, complementing the grey, pink, and pastel kits nicely. Knitter's Pride is offering gorgeous, colorful tortoise-shell patterned needles with the same pointy tips and a special, smoother surface than you normally find in glossy plastics. Meanwhile, Skacel has some brand new aluminum DPNs with a clever twist: one tip is pointy, the other blunt. Depending on the yarn, you can flip the needle to get the tip you need. Each needle in the set is a different color.

New Yarns
Next, new yarns. Blue Sky Alpacas launched a plump, two-ply, 50/50 baby alpaca and fine Merino, while Westminster Fibers was taking orders for a new mohair/silk blend from Rowan that will make you swoon. And in the realm of surprises? A satisfyingly puffy "fur" yarn that's actually almost entirely wool—also from Westminster Fibers

In Praise of Sheep
In terms of trendspotting, I'd say artisan wool yarns have hopped the fence and entered the mainstream. Titus Yarn crossed the pond from the UK and did swift business in a tidy little booth right up by the front entrance. Both Elemental Affects and Sincere Sheep were both showcasing a splendid new, jointly sourced American Cormo yarn that'll come in two weights and be very happy in any yarn shop.

Imperial Stock Ranch had the official Ralph Lauren-designed red, white, and blue Olympic sweater on display. People flocked to the Kollage Yarns booth to squeeze skeins of Happiness, a 100% American creation. They also congregated in the Mountain Meadow Wool booth to squeeze the Wyoming mill's equally succulent, spongy skeins; or in the Made in America Yarns booth to squeeze their domestically sourced yarns.

Cestari had a happy crowd too, as did my Maine favorite, Romney Ridge Farm. Even Classic Elite Yarns is augmenting its MountainTop domestic wool collection with a three-ply sport-weight blending Merino, Romney, and a wee bit of nylon.

Color was still a major component for pretty much every yarn vendor. So-called "indie" hand-dyers were well-represented, scaling from boutique levels to bigger players such as Koigu (which has a beautiful new laceweight Merino up for grabs) and ArtYarns (which previewed a new blend of silk and brushed mohair with twice the silk you usually see).

Her Name is Mrs. Crosby
Speaking of the bigger players, one of the most well-established hand-dyers of them all unveiled a new brand, aesthetic, and dye technique at TNNA. I'll show you the full line soon, but for now, I'll leave you with this sneak peek.

Meet Mrs. Crosby

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