a friendly sheep greets attendees at the 2004 New York State Sheep and Wool Festival

The Summer of Fluff

Highlights of the 2007 Fiber Festivals

I recently glanced at our Upcoming Events calendar for 2007 and realized that it's by far our biggest ever. It's positively chock full of festivals, retreats, trips, and gatherings.

But its size and scope can be a little daunting. How do you know which event, and what kind of event may be best for you? Are you more of a retreat person, or perhaps you like trips and tours? Maybe a knitting show? Or are you an old-fashioned fiber festival kind of person?

This week I'll walk you through the major fiber festival highlights of 2007, in chronological order. Next week we'll look at all the other knitting trips, retreats, tours, and shows happening this year.

If you don't see your favorite event listed, please tell us about it!

The Fiber Festival
Just as fruits, flowers, and vegetables have their season, fiber festivals have theirs too—and it tends to run from early May to late October. Fiber festivals (also often referred to as sheep and wool festivals) are the State Fairs of knitting gatherings. You'll be able to see, touch, smell, hear, and—in the case of sheep and goats—eat your favorite fiber-bearing animals.

a colorful popcorn stand from the 2004 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
Most festivals follow a similar format: they have lots of vendors selling yarns, fibers, tools, books, and finished items. They offer some classes and demonstrations (including sheep shearing demonstrations, sheep dog trials, and classes covering spinning, knitting, weaving, felting, and other fiber-related mediums). And, of course, they offer food booths with the requisite grilled sausages, soft-serve ice cream, fried funnel cakes, fried artichokes, fried potatoes, fried Twinkies, and basically anything else that can withstand being breaded and dropped in a deep-fat fryer.

Before You Go
Especially the bigger festivals can induce total sensory overload. The minute you enter the gates, smell the smells, hear the sounds, and see the sights, your brain goes into overdrive.

the Plain and Fancy booth at the Taos Wool Festival
It helps to study the vendor list (usually available on the event's Web site) ahead of time and note any vendors you absolutely must visit. There's nothing as sad as getting home and realizing you never made it to the one vendor you'd hoped to see.

Some of the fiber vendors travel from show to show within a geographic region. If you also travel from show to show, you'll begin to recognize a common cast of characters. In other cases, the vendors will be totally unique to a specific festival.

If there's an auction, shearing demonstration, lecture, or other open event I want to catch during the festival (again, studying the schedule ahead of time while my brain is still fully functional), I sometimes set the alarm on my cell phone to remind me when the event begins. I don't always hear my phone over the din of the festival, but at least I know I tried.

Other things to consider: First and foremost, wear comfortable shoes with closed toes. A distracted knitter pushing a baby carriage, of which there are usually many at these festivals, can cause great pain to other people's toes.

Next, if you plan on petting many animals or touching much raw fleece, consider bringing a pack of cleaning wipes for your hands. This will minimize the amount of time you stand in long restroom lines (another common feature at fiber festivals) just to keep your hands clean.

Also bring a shoulder bag or backpack that can expand to hold purchases, and bring lots of extra bottled water.

an embarrassingly large haul from the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival
I leave the water in a cooler in the car, and throughout the day as I bring my purchases back to the car, I can pick up a fresh cool bottle of water. And, by leaving your purchases in the car, nobody will know just how indulgent you were. (Shhhh, it'll be our little secret.)

If you have any interest in taking a class—and some festivals have outstanding classes available—I recommend you preregister as soon as possible. Most festival classes require registration, and they often fill up long before the event takes place. Some festivals have shorter "drop-in" classes that require no registration, but the good stuff almost always has to be booked earlier.

The Schedule: May

two sheep from the 2004 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
Perhaps the biggest and most venerable fiber festival in the United States is the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, which takes place the first weekend of May at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland. For me, this event marks the beginning of fiber festival season. It's a huge combination of 4-H and fiberarts, with great funnel cakes to boot.

If you want something a little smaller, wait until May 12-13 and head to Minnesota for the Shepherd's Harvest Festival in Lake Elmo. Or venture northeast to the New Hampshire Sheep and Wool Festival at the Hopkinton State Fairgrounds in Contoocook, New Hampshire. This show gets top marks from New England knitters and spinners.

Not too soon after New Hampshire, we journey west to Cummington, Massachusetts, for the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, the weekend of May 26-27.

Or, if you want something a little more intimate and manageable, Adams Farm in Wilmington, Vermont, is also holding its Sheep Shearing Wool Weekend that same weekend. At the same time, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, is also hosting the Pagosa Fiber Festival and in Wooster, Ohio, we also have the Great Lakes Fiber Show.

This brings us to June, which is an even busier month. The first weekend we have the Heart of America Sheep Show and Fiber Festival at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, Missouri. Sponsored by the Missouri Natural Colored Wool Growers Association, it includes shows of Shetland sheep, angora goats, and angora rabbits, plus vendors, classes, bluegrass music, food, and the usual festival trappings.

The following weekend—June 8-10—the Iowa Summer Sheep and Wool Festival takes place at the Dallas County Fairgrounds in Adel, Iowa. Now in its third year, this is a great festival for folks who are serious not only about fiber but also about raising animals. And back in New England that same weekend, the 7th annual Maine Fiber Frolic takes place at the Windsor Fairgrounds in Windsor, Maine. Spinners, the Fleece Barn at this show is incredible.

At this point you have six days to head west and reach Estes Park, Colorado, in time for the Estes Park Wool Market, held at the Stanley Park Fairgrounds June 16-17. In addition to a marketplace with 50 vendors, you have loads of animals on display, including sheep, llamas, alpacas, cashmere and angora goats, and angora rabbits. If you plan on attending, do consider taking one of the many workshops offered this year (and book your spot now).

If Colorado isn't in your cards, we have two other festivals taking place this same weekend. The Stone Mills Museum just north of Watertown, New York, is hosting the 6th annual Jefferson County Sheep and Wool Festival. And at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, Illinois, you can attend the Illinois Green Pastures Fiber Coop: Fleece to Fiber Festival, held in conjunction with the Cantigny Fine Arts Festival.

West Coasters, don't despair—June 22-24 is all yours! That's when the Black Sheep Gathering takes place at the Lane County Fairgrounds in Eugene, Oregon. Although smaller than Maryland, this is one of the oldest fiber festivals in the country (now in its 33rd year) and it has an outstanding selection of workshops.

Finally we reach the end of June, at which point we board a plane for England to attend the Woolfest. Now in its third year, the event takes place at the Mitchells Lakeland Livestock Centre in Cockermouth, Cumbria. It's worth the trip—more than 100 vendors and exhibitors will be there, and many rare breed sheep will also be on display.

Summer in Maine
Things quiet down a little in July, but you'll still want to keep your passport handy. That's because on July 20-23 we venture to the land of Merino for the Australian Sheep & Wool Show. It takes place at the Prince of Wales Showgrounds in Bendigo, Victoria, and includes not only a marketplace with 150 vendors, but all sorts of animal demonstrations and competitions.

Finally on the last weekend of July we have the Fiber Arts Festival at Castel Farms in Charlevoix, Michigan. It's a mid-sized event with an impressive list of vendors.

In August, we return to Michigan for the Michigan Fiber Festival. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the event is held August 18-19 at the Allegan County Fairgrounds in Allegan, Michigan. Workshops run from Wednesday to Sunday of that week and feature some pretty amazing teachers including Andrea Mielke, Galina Khmeleva, and Patsy Zawistoski.

an angora goat from Vermont
After a brief lull the festival season picks up again. We begin September 1-3 with the 28th annual World Sheep and Fiber Arts Festival in Bethel, Missouri. It has breed and fiber arts competitions, animal shows, classes about things like intensive grazing factors and foot trimming, and, of course, the crowning of a Lamb and Wool Queen.

Moving ahead one week we reach September 8-9 during which time two great shows take place simultaneously. In Wisconsin, we have the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds; and in Essex Junction, Vermont, the Vermont Sheep & Wool Festival takes place. This one was the first fiber festival I ever attended, so I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for it.

The next weekend (September 15-16) in Hemlock, New York—just south of Rochester—we have the 13th annual Finger Lakes Fiber Arts Festival at the Hemlock Fairgrounds. Among the 70+ vendors are a good number you won't find anywhere else.

Meanwhile, down in Ringoes, New Jersey, that same weekend another festival is also celebrating its 13th year. The Garden State Sheep & Fiber Festival will take place at the Hunterdon County Fairgrounds. Sponsored by the Garden State Sheep Breeders, this event has animals, sheep shearing, sheep dog demonstrations, and a fleece show and sale. A few fiber-related classes will be offered by North Country Spinners.

At this point we head west once again for the Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival, held the weekend of September 21-23 at the Clackamas County Fairgrounds in Canby, Oregon. The event began in 1997 and is well on its way to becoming a major highlight of the season.

But don't get too comfortable out there in Oregon, because we have to turn around and head east again in time for a smaller but sincere gathering in West Branch, Michigan: the Northern Michigan Lamb and Wool Festival September 28-30. Stay in Michigan for a few more days and you'll be able to visit the Mt. Bruce Station Sheep & Wool Festival in Romeo, Michigan. Mt. Bruce Station is a renovated 1920s dairy farm that now is home to a small flock of Corriedale and Jacob sheep. The festival features shearings, demonstrations, music, and visiting alpacas, llamas, and angora rabbits from nearby breeders.

Getting tired yet? Go make a cup of tea, because we haven't even finished the festivals yet.

an outdoor scene in Taos
The weekend of October 6-7 two more fiber festivals occur on nearly opposite ends of the country. In scenic Taos, New Mexico, the Wool Festival at Taos takes place in the center of town at Kit Carson Park. Meanwhile at the Montpelier Estate in Virginia, you have the Fall Fiber Festival of Virginia.

And then we reach October 20-21, my personal favorite weekend of the year. That's when the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival takes over Rhinebeck, New York, just up the Hudson River from New York City. Picture fall leaves, crisp apple cider, and gorgeous fibers as far as the eye can see.

Too far north for your tastes? Then wait until the next weekend—October 26-28—for the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair (commonly called SAFF) at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center in Asheville, North Carolina. This is probably the biggest festival in the south, and most of the major festival vendors will be there. Plus, you have tons of classes about everything from knitting and felting, to spinning, wood carving, rabbit grooming, rug hooking, and even fly tying.

While I'd normally say that SAFF caps the festival season, this year it ends with a fun little festival in a place you may not normally associate with wool: Tucson, Arizona. (I know, because I grew up there.) The festival, aptly named the Tucson Wool Festival, takes place on November 3rd. Details for this year's agenda are still forthcoming, but I wanted to mention it here for any desert dwellers seeking a dose of wool.

Coming next: A look at knitting retreats, shows, trips, and tours around the globe.

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