Editors' pick

Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival


Editorial Review

You can see crafters turning wool into a garment or blanket, from shearing sheep, cleaning and combing wool, and smoothing, dyeing and spinning it into yarn. Workshops and demonstrations on knitting, crocheting and weaving are ideal even for children. The festival also includes live music, a long line of fairground concessions, sheep to pet, border collie demonstrations and vendors selling more kinds of wool and sheep knicknacks than you can count.

For the Shear Pleasure of Sheep

By Lucy Harvey
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 5, 2006

You may not find a wolf in sheep's clothing at the 33rd annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival this weekend. But you will find more than 30 types of sheep, along with silky alpacas, shaggy llamas, long-haired angora goats and long-eared angora rabbits, all sporting their own magnificent fleeces at the Howard County Fairgrounds.

The festival, run by volunteers from the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association, is a unique, homey celebration of sheep and fiber handicrafts that draws more than 50,000 visitors to West Friendship each year.

"People come from all over the world -- spinners, sheep producers, knitters, weavers and anyone that has an appreciation for fine handicrafts," says Peggy Howell, one of the core festival volunteers.

It's a fiber and fleece bonanza celebrating sheep and wool. More than 250 vendors will ply their wares, such as sheep-breeding software programs, hand-knit sweaters and rare dyed yarns. The festival also offers sheep judging contests, fleece auctions, sheepdog trials and sheep-shearing demonstrations in a variety of barns, show rings, tents and fields that make up the grounds.

My family and I attended the festival two years ago, and we found it resembled an old-fashioned county fair without the kitschy carnival rides. My elementary-school-age daughters were intrigued by the variety of animals on display, so we petted alpacas and spied angora rabbits sitting in the laps of spinners selling their yarn.

We were quite disappointed when we missed the sheepdog trials. Instead, we plunked ourselves down on benches for the sheep judging, and I was surprised how quickly I became engaged in the contests. The judge briefly, but carefully, looked at each animal from several angles and constantly reordered them in what looked like a game of musical chairs. Within a few minutes, he had made his decisions, and he began narrating his choices, dismissing the lesser animals out of the ring and working his way up to the best of breed.

We also ambled through the barns and marveled at the different types of sheep fleeces: fluffy, curly, crimped and silky. As we strolled, we picked up interesting information on the various sheep breeds because part of the judging requires owners to provide educational materials on their sheep. I got a real sense of man's centuries-long interdependence on these animals; one brochure said wool can be considered the first commodity to be traded internationally.

Interspersed throughout the barns are tables and tents for myriad crafters to display their wares. We strode past tables of handcrafted looms, piles of hand-dyed yarns in a rainbow of colors, felt hats and scarves, and hand-woven shawls and cloth.

"It's a very unique, down-to-earth crowd," says Tinka Fedorka, a weaver from Winchester, Va., who regularly exhibits at the festival even though she usually enters her work in high-end art shows.

"People who like sheep are a different brand of people," she says, adding that festival attendees understand the time-consuming nature of her traditional craft. Her sentiments were echoed by another longtime festival vendor, Bonnie Hassler, co-owner of Yarns International of Bethesda. "Everyone is in love with the whole idea of wool. It's a great audience for what we do," she says.

This year, the festival will showcase a Native American group of weavers known as Navajo Men Who Weave from the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Ariz. There will be free Navajo weaving classes for adults and kids, in addition to spinning, weaving and knitting classes. Two kids' tents will offer activities throughout the weekend. Visit the festival Web site ( http://www.sheepandwool.org/ ) for the schedule and to see whether registration is required.

According to Howell, the festival began in the early 1970s as a Carroll County Farm Museum event to connect hand-spinners with sheep breeders so the breeders would have an outlet for their colored fleeces. Today the fleece auction is still a major event at the festival. Howell explained that the mission of the entire festival is to educate the public about sheep and wool.

"It's a great, sheepy event," Hassler says. "It's like a family reunion."