The spinner from Bethesda was disgruntled. Here she was, willing to fork over $2 a pound for bagged white wool fleece, and the breeder refused to allow her to untie and unroll it for inspection.
There were signs of such undesirable foreign matter as manure and chaff visible on top, so, denied a better look, the spinner put the fleece back and walked away complaining.
"We're not trying to hide anything, but it would be a terrible mess if we let everybody open up the fleece," the breeder said. "We kicked out about 20 fleeces out of 200. Some things you just have to take on faith."
The faith of those attending the Maryland Sheepbreeders' Fourth Annual Sheep and Wool Festival here in Carroll County this weekend was, however, somewhat divided.
There were, on the one hand, the city and suburban spinners and weavers, mostly women seeking largely intangible rewards that come from long hours of plying a craft, of using skills made obsolete by the Industrial Revolution.
With just a hint of condescension, they are referred to as "hobbyists" by some of the country breeders who provide the raw material of their craft. The breeders are mostly men whose primary interest is lamb for meat, with the wool a by-product.
In recent years, however, the growing crafts revival has created an increasing and more lucrative market for wool, especially for the brown, black and gray wools. Virtually all white wool is sold in quantity to mills at the state's annual wool "pool" at Timonium in June. The commercial mills disdain the colored wools that the amateur spinners particularly appreciate.
A direct outgrowth of the new wool-for-crafts market has been the annual festival where the two cultures coincide. It is a setting, at the Carroll County Agricultural Center about 75 miles due north of Washington, where the breeders and the craftspeople come together briefly and a bit uneasily in a sort of symbiotic relationships, like two close parallel lines that never quite intersect.
They came together Friday and Saturday for such events as the auction of dark fleeces and the straight price sale of white onces. The event developed in part after handplanners seeking one or two fleeces were barred from the large volume wool pool.
"It got to be a nulsance," explained David Greene, the wool pool-chairman who helped with this weekend's auction, "when 100,000 pounds are brought in, graded, handled and sold in a couple of days." The white wool brought to the Westminster festival, he said, is "the best wool, extra-clean, extra-long for these handspinners." What remained unsold would wind up at Timonium, bringing around 70 cents a pound instead of the $2 charged at Westminster.
When the festival began a few years ago, spinners often bid $5 and $6 a pound for the colored wools. This year, however, was a spinner's market. The 48 dark wools sold at auction for prices ranging from $1.25 to $3 a pound, with one small fleece bringing $4.50 a pound.
"The handspinners created a market that wasn't there before," said Bob Meunier, a professional auctioneer and real-estate broker from Thurmont, Md., who raises a few sheep on the side. "More people are raiging black sheep for that reason. Maybe we're getting too many black fleeces. The prices are depressed from last year."
Meunier, the auctioneer, tried to pop up the crowd of about 50 bidders and onlookers Friday. "We plan a nice weekend for you people, we got shade here and you're not bidding."
Nine fleeces went unsold for lack of bidders or, in two cases, low bids the breeder wouldn't accept. The bidding on one fleece started as low as $1 a pound.
"They're really going cheap," said Kathy Woldberger, a 30-year-old Baltimore spinner. "A real steal. It's too bad for the farmers." Wolberger walked off with a 10-pound fleece for $2.30 a pound. She said it would cost $4 a pound in a crafts supplies store.
Maryland's nearly 300 breeders have 17,000 sheep, very few compared to Virginia and a minuscule number compared to the big league states of the wooly West. Nonetheless, to Maryland's breeders it's still serious business, and only a part of what they must do to earn a living.
"I don't think the (craftspeople appreciate the effort we make in promoting lamb and wool," said Dave Greene. "They don't have the evangelical zeal in promoting the product we do." He appreciates, however, that every spinning demonstration in a suburban mall helps to promote wool products.
The spinners, for their part, complain about breeders not keeping their sheep in a clean environment. The result is a dirty fleece that the spinners must pick clean and scour before using.
In the main building at the three-day festival that ends today, two spinning groups demonstrated their craft. On display and for sale were a variety of looms, wheels and finished products.
One of the booths belonged to Jean Woodward, a spinning instructor who keeps three sheep on the three-acre homestead she and her IBM-employed husband own in Damascus.
"Now that I spin, I want to have the wool readily available," she said, echoing the dream of many city spinners for a sheep of their own. "I love the animal. It's such a peaceful thing, just sitting in the hills watching them."
The craftspeople and the breeders came together again for the afternoon dog trials. The Friday event turned into a disaster. However, after the three sheep escaped under a fence and the sheepdogs were unable to herd them back.
Bridging the gap between the breeders and spinners were people like Rae Nicholson, the festival director who gave up schoolteaching to raise sheep in Baltimore County, an evolution that for her began with dyeing and spinning wool.
Nicholson and her husband, Thomas, a plant engineer at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, "grew up in the shadows of the steel mills" in the Dundalk and Sparrow's Point sections of Baltimore. Their children, however, are "growing up as country kids," deeply involved in the rural life of early morning farm chores and after-school 4-H projects.
The four contestestants Friday night for the title of 1977 Maryland Lamb & Wool Queen were all 4-H members knowledgeable about breeding and showing sheep. Only one, however, had done any spinning.
As it turned out, the only contestant who could spin came in second, receiving a blue wool bouquet and sash and the title of "Princess."
The winner, Patricia Ann Salfner, 18, of Baltimore County, did not know how to spin - yet. Along with a plaque, cook books and other prizes, however her rewards will include free spinning lessons. She said she's looking forward to it.