Baaa, Ram, Ewe: A Report on the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival

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on Jun 7, 2006 12:36 PM

Maryland Sheep and Wool FestivalThe magic words from Babe kept flowing through my head like a mantra while my daughter Selma, my mom, and I walked around Maryland Sheep and Wool festival on Sunday, May 7th, 2006.

The festival is the oldest event of its kind in the country. It is held at the Howard County Fairgrounds, and normally runs the first weekend in May. For most fiber lovers in the DC, Virginia, Maryland, and even Pennsylvania, it’s an annual pilgrimage. Last summer I moved to Takoma Park, Maryland. One of the first things I did was attend the monthly Stitch n *** at the Savory Café. It was the last Thursday in May, and everyone was flush with their purchases and T-shirts from “Sheep and Wool.” I quickly learned that this event was one not to be missed.

This year, I went with my mother and daughter, Selma, in tow. We chose Sunday because we’d heard that Saturdays the crowds could be unbearable. Most of the folks I know were going both days. “You’re not going on Saturday?” they’d say incredulously. “Sometimes all the good stuff sells out on Saturday morning!” All the better, I thought, since I was trying not to buy too much. “Sunday can still be very crowded,” someone said.

We did not get an early start. After an hour’s drive, we arrived at the fairgrounds around noon. The crowds were light, but folks were actively looking and buying. I told Selma that it would be like a state fair without the rides, but there certainly would be ice cream and lemonade. It was like a state fair – for fiber addicts. Barn after barn of displays, and every type of yarn you can imagine. The festival features small, local producers, like Kiparoo farms and Dancing Leaf Farms; both produce beautiful fibers from animals they raise themselves.

In a large tent filled with Navajo rugs, wool and weaving, tribe members demonstrated uses for the amazing colored wool produced by the famed Navajo-Churro sheep.

drop spindlingA woman covered in turquoise jewelry was carding wool. A man used a drop-spindle so adeptly, it seemed as fast as a spinning wheel. A third was weaving an intricate rug.

As we moved through the fairground we found the animals. Sheep of every variety you could imagine – rare varieties like Jacob sheep, and more common ones like Shetland sheep, merino sheep.  Many I had never even heard of before. Some had been shorn; some had full coats. There were suckling babies and large mama sheep, as well as rams – some with 2 full sets of horns.

There were Llamas and my current favorite type of wool producer – Alpacas.

A baby mohair goat slept in his farmer’s arms. “A rough life,” I said to the farmer. “Just be sure when you’re snuggling a goat that you let its butt hang off your lap,” he replied. “They poop in their sleep.”  I’ll keep that in mind, I thought, imagining the goats from South Africa who grew the mohair from Be Sweet that I had on my hook.

angora rabbit fur being spunThe animals that completely captivated me on Sunday were the Angora bunnies. Maybe it’s because they seemed the most domesticated – almost like cats. They sat peacefully on their owners’ laps. They eagerly received pets from children, and they were just so soft. I learned, much to my surprise, that an Angora rabbit is the only animal whose wool can be spun directly off the animal.

Ancient sheep used to “molt” or shed their fleece twice a year, but they’ve been bred over eons to keep it on so it can be shorn all at once. Angora wool grows at the breakneck pace of an inch a month. They’re ready for spinning every 3 months. And because the wool just falls off, there’s no need to shear them. The spinner just gently pulls off the clumps. This also saves the bunny from icky hairball problems. So, it’s a win-win.

yarnSelma and my mom wandered off to look at more animals and find some kids’ activities while I cruised quickly through the yarn barns. Everything was great to touch and see: gorgeous hand-made buttons, spinning wheels, roving, fleece, needles, notions, and yarn. There were some beautiful blends. Most interesting to me were the tencel blends. Tencel gives a great sheen and drape to the yarn. Even though I’m supposed to be on a yarn diet, I bought a few balls here and there – more like “souvenir” yarn than yarn with any real purpose. And, of course, I bought a small ball of 100% angora that I believe is destined to be turned back into a bunny – amigurumi-style.

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