|The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival|
Howard County Fairgrounds
West Friendship, Maryland
May 7-8, 2005
Now in its 32nd year and attracting more than 60,000 visitors and almost 260 vendors, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is a Mecca for fiber lovers.|
Held the first weekend of May at the Howard County Fairgrounds, the event is one of the most venerable sheep and wool festivals in the country.
Vendors occupy four barns, two buildings, and an enormous main exhibition hall, with every extra available space taken by tents. Another four display barns are temporary home to farms bringing sheep for sale and competition. Vendors wait years for a chance to exhibit here.
People come from all over the country for this festival, and groups in nearby cities, including Philadelphia and New York, organized carpools and rented tour buses for the event. Unable to miss a good fiber gathering, I flew down from Maine for the event.
Pre-festival excitement was palpable. In the KR Forum, we had daily—and sometimes hourly—weather updates and lengthy threads about which vendors were must-sees, how much money to bring and in what form, what time to arrive, how to negotiate with family members, which food vendors were safe, how to deal with bathrooms, and what kinds of clothes to wear—to name a few. There was even an official Pity Party for Forum members who couldn't attend the festival.
|The fairgrounds officially opened at 9 a.m. on Saturday. By 8:30 a.m. traffic was already backed up all the way to the highway. Cars streamed into the large grassy fields that border the fairgrounds.|
|You could feel the collective excitement of knitters, spinners, weavers, and other fiber lovers in their element.|
|The scent of fried foods and charcoal soon filled the air, and you could hear the first of what was an endless stream of announcements over the PA system.|
Repeat visitors were on a serious mission, rushing to their favorite destinations while their mind was still clear. Lines formed almost instantly by all the women's bathrooms. Another line, several dozen people deep (at right), formed outside the festival T-shirt and souvenir barn.
|Soon enough, the festival stupor took over and the crowd, packed hip to hip, slowed to a bovine pace.|
|The Fleece Frenzy|
For spinners, the real gold was to be found at the fleece area, where hundreds of fantastic fleeces from all sorts of sheep breeds were carefully bagged, sorted, graded, judged, and piled atop table after table.
Before the festival
By Sunday afternoon
|After waiting 40 minutes in line for my chance to get a gorgeous blue-ribbon fleece when the sale opened, an unscrupulous (and unapologetic) spinner behind me jumped the fence at the last minute and grabbed it first.|
Hand-dyed yarns were everywhere. As in previous years, the Persimmon Tree Farm (below left) and Brooks Farm Fiber (below right) booths were instantly swarmed with customers who, by the second day, had picked the vendors clean. (I was happy to see that the addition of a Web site with online shopping hadn't lessened the sense of urgency at the Brooks Farm Fiber booth.)
Persimmon Tree Farm's colorful yarns and delicately blended spinning fibers, picked clean
An equally empty Brooks Farm Fibers
|Tess' Designer Yarns had a stunning display of hand-dyed silks, bouclés, wools, ribbons, superbulkies and other yarns, all sorted by colorway. Even on Sunday afternoon, the booth had a constant line at the check-out table.|
|I was happy to see that the Dyed Dreams dynamic duo of Roz Houseknecht and Janet Stollnitz was back for another year, with a booth exploding with riotous-colored hand-dyed yarns in both standard and novelty form, including a truly striking silk chenille.|
|Botanical Shades (formerly Tregellys Fiber Farm) had a beautiful rainbow of wools that had been dyed using only natural botanical dye extracts.|
|Other notable hand-dyed resources were Wool in the Woods and Koenig Farm.|
The Spin Phenomenon
Spinning played a big role at the festival, and fibers—from raw fleeces to cleaned, dyed, and combed top—were everywhere.
|A few of my favorites: the Drafting Zone (301-464-5738), for its lovingly prepared, beautifully dyed, and yet reasonably priced rovings; and Firesong Fibers, whose gorgeous hand-dyed Bluefaced Leicester/mohair spinning fibers (shown at right) are always sold out by Sunday.|
|And finally, there's no describing the pure magic of Levin & Raja's Border Leicester fleeces, which are impeccably clean and ready for spinning. Levin happens to be Betty Levin, the author of several popular books for young adults. They only sell their fleeces here, and once they're gone, they're gone.|
|An exciting new addition this year was our very own Spirit Trail Fiberworks, which was invited to attend the festival with only three days' notice. Besides offering hand-dyed yarns, Jennifer Heverly's booth had the most impressive selection of spinning fibers from rare and endangered sheep.|
From shears and electric fencing to drum carders and wheels, tools play an equally important part in the festival.
|I especially enjoyed having the opportunity to try out all sorts of otherwise hard-to-find spinning wheels including the Vermont Wheel, pictured here (only 12 or so are made each year).|
|From Browser to Blanket|
As in previous years, we had a casual Knitter's Review lunchtime reunion on Saturday. Some 50 people dropped by our little picnic blanket over the course of several hours for lunch and a chance to meet face to face.
|Across the fairgrounds on an equally grassy slope, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (seated behind the person standing) was meeting with fellow bloggers and signing copies of her book. I stopped briefly and we compared sunburns.|
A Time for Learning|
Although many people come to the festival just for the shopping, there's a well-developed curriculum of classes both before and during the event.
|Judith MacKenzie McCuin (at right) taught an in-depth workshop on how to spin three very different types of yarn. In another room, Nancy Bush taught Estonian lace-knitting techniques.|
|Shorter pre-festival workshops covered such topics as painting yarn and blending colors in handmade felt. During the festival, three-hour classes took place on such topics as spinning with Leicester Longwool, spinning a superfine gossamer thread, and knitting with Estonian color inlay.|
Attendees who hadn't preregistered for those classes could drop in for a free Sunday hourlong workshop on—of all things—creating fishing flies entirely of wool. Who knew?
More than a giant shopping mall for fiberholics, the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival is very much an agricultural event. Running parallel to the fiberarts workshops were extensive workshops for current and aspiring shepherds on such topics as management tips for profitable sheep production, the journey of Leicester Longwools to the United States, the history and future of the show ring, how to market rare breeds, and how to make lamb sausage for home use.
Skein and Garment Competition
|As usual, the skein and garment competition showcased a mind-boggling array of fiber feats, including this fishbowl in which everything but the glass itself was made from felt.|
|These ribbon-winning socks by Shelia January had extra significance for me because I got to see them in progress at the Knitter's Review Retreat last fall.|
In the livestock barns, the farms and breeding associations each had their own cheering section, with signage reminiscent of high-school pep rallies and science fairs. On one wall was a banner that read, "Karakul sheep rock!" while on another, "There's a lot to like about Lincolns."
|Here's where people with children tended to congregate. Small tables held displays explaining the history and characteristics of the breed. And everywhere you looked, people were reaching to pet a sheep—myself included.|
|By Sunday afternoon, most of the sheep were pooped. Festivals can be very draining for sheep, which is why many farms leave their most prized animals at home.|
It's worth it to stay at the festival on Sunday until closing time if only to watch the parade of sheep going back to their trailers for the trip home.
|Meanwhile, as some adults staffed the booths, wrangled the sheep, and shopped the aisles, their children could be found taking turns rolling down this grassy slope.|
|Although the deep-fried Twinkies were noticeably absent from this year's festival, we still found ways to indulge in delicious deep-fried treats.|
|And then, almost as quickly as it started, the festival was over. Passing trucks and vans with bleating sheep inside, I felt exhausted but energized by so much beauty, creativity, kindness, kinship, and inspiration.|
Until next year!
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