Report from the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
Howard County Fairgrounds
West Friendship, Maryland
May 1-2, 2004
Now in its 31st year and attracting almost 60,000 people, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival bills itself as the largest festival of its kind in the world. The event takes place at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland, bucolic countryside that is working hard to fend off urban development.|
The festival mission is to present "everything you'd ever want to know about sheep and wool," which means workshops, seminars, and almost 250 vendors who focus on everything from raising sheep to understanding wool science, training sheep dogs, learning to process fibers, spin, dye, knit, weave, and more.
When I arrived a few minutes before 9am on Saturday, there was already a traffic jam, the parking lot was filling up fast, and a steady stream of people made their way to the entrance.
|The Howard County Fairgrounds are set up such that the main entrance is at the rear of the fairgrounds. This means you have to navigate all the outside tents and smaller barns before ever reaching the main exhibition hall.|
Depending on the temperature, crowd size, and your personal stamina, this trek alone could take all day. For this reason alone, I highly recommend you give the festival two full days to explore.
|The Adventure Begins|
The first, most remarkable thing to note about this fair is that it is absolutely free. While most festivals of this kind charge a modest admission fee or ask for a donation, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is free to all comers.
Even the 190-page festival brochure is free. How do they do it?
A glimpse at the festival souvenir sales gives one possible answer. Like a band's groupies, loyal festival-goers line up as soon as they can possibly enter the fairgrounds on Saturday morning to get their fiberly badges of honor: festival T-shirts and souvenirs.
Not 15 minutes after the festival opened, more than 60 people were in line for their goodies, and it remained this way most of the day. By the time this picture was taken, much of the merchandise had already sold out.
Back to School
|The festival was preceded by several days of pre-festival workshops that cover everything from knitting and spinning to shepherding and wool science. Hands-on workshops covered spinning sock yarn, stranding yarn, innovative finishing, popular wheel mechanics, cables, and ambidextrous knitting with such teachers as Anna Zilboorg and Judith MacKenzie McCuin.|
Serious shepherds could take workshops on how to raise sheep, train a sheep dog, and identify and prevent diseases that are currently affecting North American livestock.
Sheep, Sheep, and More Sheep
|Everywhere you looked were sheep in one form or another. There were more than 1,000 in all, representing some 30 breeds. Sometimes they were being taken on walks through the grounds, sometimes they were carried out to trucks by their new owners.|
And yes, sometimes they were served up as steaming sausage, kebabs, ribs, gyros, or barbecue platters.
what's that you say?
admiring a Morehouse Merino ribbon-winner
|The KR Reunion|
On Saturday, many Knitter's Review readers and forum members gathered for a casual picnic lunch on the grass.
While we ate and chatted, Jennifer Heverly showed us the first two sweaters in a series designed by Annie Modesitt exclusively for Jennifer's Spirit Trail Fiberworks. Annie definitely outdid herself this time!
Not five minutes later, Annie herself entered the fairgrounds with husband and children in tow, all wearing T-shirts promoting her new book Confessions of a Knitting Heretic. Here she is, chatting and autographing copies of her book.
No major fiber festival would be complete without a stop at Mostly Merino, owned by the gracious and talented Margaret Klein Wilson. Margaret excitedly told me that her book, The Green Mountain Spinnery Knitting Book: Contemporary and Classic Patterns, has already gone into its second printing.
Arlington, Kentucky-based Koenig Farm & Spinnery had a lovely array of dyed and hand-painted yarns at the festival, as well as fibers and kits. Some of the most delicious yarns were made from pure yearling mohair. The heavy, relaxed drape of the yarn made picking up skeins rather like picking up a sleeping cat.
This stunning hank of hand-painted yarns from Dancing Leaf Farm stopped me in my tracks.
When I know Brooks Farm Fiber is at a festival, I make it a priority to stop at their booth as early as possible. Their following is so strong that when I returned on Sunday morning, their booth had been almost completely picked dry.
The Lancaster, Texas-based farm raises colored angora goats and provides hand-dyed mohair-based yarns in a stunning array of colors, some mixed, some solid. Brooks Farm also has a limited selection of spinning fibers and fleeces.
Brooks Farm has no Web site nor storefront, but you can contact owners Randall and Sherry Brooks for color cards and orders by phone (972-227-1593) or email. By the way, if you thought you had to be an accomplished knitter to produce good yarn, think again: Sherry Brooks doesn't knit a stitch.
News flash! Since this article was written, Brooks Farm added a Web site with online ordering. Enjoy!
|I discovered FireSong several years ago when I first attended this festival. It's a marvelous source for hand-dyed rovings and yarns.|
They tend to use bluefaced leicester in their rovings, and it spins up like a dream. By the time I reached their booth on Saturday afternoon, their stock was nearly gone.
They have no Web site, but you can contact owner Diane Kelly by telephone (301-854-4848) or email.
Although I did see several interesting fiber blends, my vote for most unusual combo went to Dzined, makers of a hemp/merino yarn and roving. The yarn felt lightweight, soft and powdery, rather like raw silk.
The American Textile History Museum, based in Lowell, Massachusetts, had a large tent showcasing an exquisite collection of early American blankets and coverlets.
|The fleece competition is another perennial festival favorite. All the blue-ribbon fleeces were spoken for within a matter of hours, but dozens upon dozens of fleeces remained available, as seen here.|
Festivals are ideal venues for buying fleeces. First, you can inspect the fleece yourself. And second, you can take it directly to one of the many fiber processors on site. No shipping, no muss, no fuss, and in 12 weeks you get a box full of beautiful clean roving, top, or even yarn.
I left one fleece with Ohio Valley Natural Fibers. Other processors present included Frankenmuth Woolen Mill, Zeilinger, and Fingerlakes Woolen Mill. Most processors offered special rates exclusively for the duration of the festival.
Lest you think the only vendors were yarn stores and fiber suppliers, think again. Several vendors had livestock equipment and supplies ranging from electric fencing to sheep pens and medication.
The skein and garment competition had an impressive array of entries. These two items stood out above the rest: a knitted doll and felted wood nymph.
Another favorite part of the festival is the auction of spinning and weaving equipment. The auction tent was nearly bursting with new and antique wheels, looms and loom parts, umbrella swifts, sock knitting machines, you name it. People had several hours to scope out the tent before the auction began.
The auctioneer was at a disadvantage because he knew nothing about what he was selling. "Here we have a big box of these weaving things," he'd begin. "Shuttles!" the crowd would cry. And so it went for hours and hours until everything had been reassigned to new homes.
What festival wrap-up would be complete without a description of the food? Meal-time at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival bordered on gluttony: funnel cakes (top left), cotton candy, popcorn (middle), corn dogs, kettle corn, French fries (top right), pit ham, nachos, quesadillas, taco salad, fajitas, burritos, and a half-dozen versions of lamb. Not pictured: deep-fried Hostess Twinkies, affectionately nicknamed "heart attacks on a stick."
All we needed was a place to take a nap after lunch and the festival would have been complete!
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