the Taconic Parkway

Report from Rhinebeck:
New York Sheep and Wool Festival
October 20-21, 2012

Few places are as lovely as New York in October. The rolling hills along the Taconic Parkway offer up an apple-colored landscape with fields and farms that look as if they've been there forever.

In the town of Rhinebeck, just up the Hudson from New York City, something particularly magical happens every third weekend of October. More than 260 fiberarts vendors and tens of thousands of people assemble at the beautifully landscaped Dutchess County Fairgrounds to celebrate all things fiber at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.

Kids playing in the leaves A fresh cider donut and cider

For me, it's a return to my upstate New York childhood—to children playing in the fallen leaves, to feasts of still-warm donuts and tart apple cider, and, perhaps most important of all, to the undeniable comfort of being among my people. In this case, my fiber people.

The festival, which is affectionately dubbed "Rhinebeck," is a fiber-family reunion for which people travel thousands of miles every year to attend. Hotel rooms, rental houses, and B&Bs are booked years in advance, tables snagged at all the favorite local restaurants.

A flock of gorgeous handknits

People carefully plan what they're going to wear, casting on new projects—so-called "Rhinebeck sweaters"—and knitting away for weeks, often binding off the last stitch on Friday night and blocking their sweaters and shawls on spare hotel-room beds. (On Saturday morning, I imagine hotel cleaning staff throughout the region dismayed by the number of slightly wet yet not slept-in beds.) You'll see entire families proudly clad in handknits, children wearing adorable outfits knit just for the occasion, husbands and wives and partners proudly wearing works of art whose stitches say, "You bet I'm loved."

It's the knitterly version of homecoming weekend.

This year, the weather was unseasonably warm on Saturday, but knitters braved the heat to show off their prized handknits. Complete strangers approached one-another to ooh and aaah and ask which sweater, or which pattern, the other person was wearing. I lost count of the number of slouchy hats I saw, as well as Color Affection shawls and Levenwick sweaters. Knitters are embarking upon more and more ambitious projects beyond mitts and cowls.

On Saturday morning, lines formed at all the gates long before the festival actually opens. As soon as the gates opened, I saw people sprint past barns and random food booths to be among the first at their favorite vendor's booth.

Go Monkey Design

For some, it might be Norm Hall, the renowned spinning-wheel maker whose waiting list has a waiting list, but who has been known to sell a spare wheel every year at the show. For others, it's not even yarn or fiber but some charming accessory like the mugs at Jennie the Potter, or the sewn fabric bags and accessory cases at Go Monkey Design or CrippenWorks or Julia Hilbrandt.

Handspun yarn Briar Rose Yarns

But most of us had yarn on our minds, and when those gates open, our sprint is taking us to a yarn vendor. Here the selection is utterly mind-boggling. Booth after booth, barn after barn is packed with yarn, some of it commercial, some custom-spun from unique fibers, some of it handspun.

Mostly? We're sprinting to booths that featured yarns dyed by hand. We're lining up at vendors like Spirit Trail Fiberworks, Briar Rose, Cephalopod Yarns, The Fold, Brooks Farm Yarn, or Tess Designers Yarns (to name but a few) because it's a rare opportunity for us to see the dyer's work in its entirety and in person, not just squinting at a computer screen. We can touch the skeins, squeeze them, sniff them, hold them up to our faces and ask our friends, "What about this color?" Best of all, we don't have to wait for a special order to arrive, we can immediately take the yarn home with us.

Slinky Mink bikini top anyone?

My list always includes Still River Mill, a small spinnery based in Connecticut. Every year they have a slightly different twist or blend that always features the rare or unusual. This time, it was a four-ply fingering-weight blend of merino, silk, and mink called "Slinky Mink." Naturally, two skeins came home with me.

Solitude Wool

Newcomer Solitude Wool slipped into the line-up as if they'd had their breed-specific artisan yarns at the show forever. I also celebrated the return of another personal favorite, Foxfire Fiber and Designs.

Child meets sheep

As abundant as the yarn is, many people don't come to the festival to buy yarn. They don't even knit.

They just come up for a weekend in the country. They bring their children and watch them interact with sheep for perhaps the first time.

They stand in line to eat lamb, or artichokes, or maple cotton-candy. They watch the sheepdogs, sample local wines, perhaps try on a felted hat, or buy some socks, or maybe a stylish dress made entirely from repurposed old commercial knits.

the fairgrounds the cider house

hello sheep fairgrounds

felted hats A sock machine demonstration

They come to watch people do interesting things like knit a sock on an antique sock-knitting machine. Sometimes this leads them down such a rabbit hole that they end up lugging a new piece of equipment back out to the car with them.

Anyone, even a sullen non-knitting teenage boy, can attend Rhinebeck and be entertained and fully engaged.

Sure, things change. Vendors come and go. Children grow up and go off to college. Heck, everyone's still reeling about the chicken pot pie vendor who stopped coming last year. Yet one eternal truth remains: the sheep will keep growing more wool that will always need to be shorn, spun, dyed, sold, and coveted by us.

closing time

Nevertheless, I suspect Rhinebeck retains its magic in part because it is such a fleeting moment. On Sunday when the clock strikes 5pm, like Cinderella and her magic pumpkin, the spell is broken. Vendors take down their booths, and in just a few hours the buildings are stripped of their finery. Everything is boxed, bagged, and loaded into cars and vans, which fan out from the fairgrounds and back out into the world for another year.

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