The 2010 Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival
West Friendship, MD
May 1-2, 2010
While some sheep and wool festivals are slowly evolving into shopping malls for fiber enthusiasts, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival—now in its 37th year—still retains its strong agricultural roots. This event, always held the first full weekend in May, is very much about the entire life cycle of the animal, from birth to barbecue.
Shepherds from as far as California bring their animals for competition and sale. They come to be judged by the experts, mingle with their peers, and learn from their mentors. These are people whose lives are about caring for and breeding the very best of the best. This is their moment, and the excitement—and pressure—are palpable.
But it's also a time for knitters, spinners, felters, weavers, and anyone else who loves a good bag of wool. We, too, come to spend time with our peers, learn from our mentors, and mingle with people who share our common passion.
We gladly overindulge, testing tools, touching materials, and acquiring things we can't otherwise easily acquire. And finally at day's end we drag ourselves back to our cars, arms laden with bags, ears ringing, feet hurting, sunburned, hot, thirsty, and yet completely sated for another year. We're left with a lot to digest, both literally and figuratively.
Each of us comes with unique priorities and leaves with different memories. Some of us engage in high-stakes competitive shopping, others have a more laissez-faire attitude. Here are my impressions of what some knitters and spinners were seeing, doing, and buying at the festival.
For wool fans, this was the place to see and touch sheep breeds. It felt as if someone transformed my book into a three-dimensional scratch-and-sniff playground—Coopworth, Romney, Teeswater, Shetland, Icelandic, Border Leicester, you name it, they were there.
My happiest wool find was Solitude, a working sheep farm in Western Loudon County, Virginia. Working with other area farmers, they collect premium fleeces and transform them into breed-specific millspun yarns that are then either sold natural or in a lovely palette of naturally dyed colors.
What's most remarkable about these yarns is that they have been spun to mimic the breed's natural crimp pattern, in weights and plies that match that breed's behavior perfectly. They had an exceptional Icelandic yarn whose soft hand and luminous halo would astonish anyone who's only used the traditional Lopi-style Icelandic. Their Border Leicester/Leicester Longwool positively glowed, and I still regret not buying a skein or two of their perfectly poofy yet well-balanced Dorset/Suffolk sock yarn.
Bottom line: If you want to experience millspun, breed-specific wools as they were meant to be spun, bookmark Solitude and check back often.
Fiber festivals offer a rare opportunity to experiment with different kinds of spinning wheels, spindles, and needles that our local shops may not otherwise carry. This is particularly useful for wheels and needles that carry a high price tag. Several vendors told me that wheel sales were generally down, but hand spindles and high-end needles were flying off the shelves.
Tents all had to be made of flame-retardant materials and spaced in far more open configurations. This meant that many of the outdoor vendors—including Brooks Farm—were relocated to a flat, shadeless gravel spot where cars used to park. Meanwhile, many of their long-occupied spaces were occupied by other vendors, just not them. It was a mystery whose underlying politics are unimaginably tricky, I'm sure.
As a result of this move, however, many attendees missed the new area entirely, aided perhaps by the row of parked emergency vehicles that hid the tents from view for most of Saturday. By Sunday, the area had been unaffectionately dubbed "tent city."
Despite the much more visible police presence, several thefts occurred over the weekend. Valuable jewelry, prints, and knitted samples all went missing. In the last few years, theft has become a significant problem for fiber events around the country. Samples and class supplies have been stolen from under teachers' noses, wheels have been lifted from locked rooms, and single socks—single mis-matched socks!—have been slipped out of vendor booths. I consider it an unfortunate byproduct of our success and increased visibility. But the bottom line is that we should practice as much caution at these events as we do in the rest of our daily lives.
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