by Adina Salmansohn
Long ago, there were not many opportunities for knitters, spinners, and other fiber crafters to gather. The 1970s saw a florescence of craft, and there were gatherings, but up until about twenty years ago, Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, and the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, commonly referred to as "Rhinebeck," were really the only conventions for fiber folk.
Eventually more and more regional festivals began popping up. Now, during both the fall and the spring shearing seasons, just about any sheep-breeding region of the country will have an owners' association, which sponsors a show. These three-day weekend extravaganzas are wild and wooly celebrations of every possible step in the fiber process— "from conception to consumption," as the ad for specialty shepherding classes declares.
This marks the the 14th year of the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival, located in Jefferson, WI. The Jefferson Fairgrounds, located on the banks of the Rock River, provide a commodious area for sheep, shepherds, and flocks of eager knitters, crocheters, spinners, felters, and weavers.
Looking about the fairgrounds this year, I recalled the very first Festival back in 2001. That year there were about five vendors, some food, and some eager dogs competing in a flyball competition. This current weekend, however, I saw two large fair sheds bursting with marvelous vendors, a large selection of crafting classes taught by nationally-known instructors, a large "Crook and Whistle" stock dog competition, youth-lead competitions, skein competitions, "Make it With Wool" competition, and many other activities. It was a place to meet, greet, learn about everything sheep, and shop.
And oh my, were folks shopping! People were hauling bags to their cars, full of stunning yarn, luscious fiber, spinning wheels, spindles, and other toys. Goat's milk soaps, baskets, artwork, jewelry, and pottery rounded out the offerings.
Each festival has its own vibe and character. For example, Stitches Midwest is a primarily knitters paradise, with upscale urban-style fashion shows and pricey, fashion-forward vendors. Even though some of the vendors at Wisconsin Sheep and Wool are the same as at Stitches Midwest, the pace is slower, the offerings geared as much toward spinners and breeders as toward knitters. The fair in Jefferson is a place to meet other shepherds, buy and sell livestock and related equipment, and to enhance one's reputation as a breeder. Young people learning the sheepherding trade can meet other youths and compete showing the lambs they have raised. Knitters and spinners are scattered about the grounds, munching on the delicious offerings of pulled lamb sandwiches, crepes or pierogis, and spinning and knitting.
Part of the charm of the experience is the ability to camp on the grounds, if one likes. After the majority of shoppers have absconded with their booty and the fairground quiets and darkens, we visited some of the animals that is the focus of this festival. Knitters and spinners are the end users of the ultimate sheep product, fleece. As consumers of the fiber grown by the shepherds, we have a wonderful opportunity to learn at these festivals about every aspect of the making of fleece, which can be beautifully transformed with our creativity and industry.
It seems inconceivable that one would attend the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival and not be a knitter, spinner, or other crafter, but for those who just wanted a day in the country, the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival did not disappoint.