Human beings have invented some strange competitions, but few are as wild as the Sheep-to-Shawl Contest, part of the 18th annual Sheep and Wool Festival, which will be held next weekend at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
Five otherwise rational people -- one shearer, three spinners and one weaver -- form a team. Then they find an unwilling and uncooperative sixth member, a sheep fat with a winter's worth of wool.
At the opening bell, the shearers each grab a wiggling sheep and start to shear. As the wool falls off in great hunks, it is handed to the spinners who first card it, then spin it into yarn. Then the weaver takes over, places the yard on a loom and transforms it into a shawl. The first shawl over the finish line, so to speak, is not exactly the winner but does score some big points in a scoring system that includes teamwork, design and craftsmanship.
You might suspect this could drag on for a couple of days, but it doesn't, according to Mary Ann Jackson, who is in charge of the contest. "In two hours they have a shawl," she says.
The Sheep-to-Shawl, which will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, is just one of a number of events at the festival, sponsored by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association to promote lamb and wool and to provide a marketplace for sheep and related products.
If you've never been to the Sheep and Wool Festival, it will come as a pleasant shock. There are no rides, no junk food, no carnival-like atmosphere. It's just a gentle, old-time farm festival of the kind you might not believe exist anymore. It doesn't cost anything, not even to park. And last year it attracted about 40,000 people to the fairgrounds.
In addition to the Sheep-to-Shawl there will be competitions for fleeces; for sheep art, sheep photographs, and posters; for handmade wool clothing; and for professional sheep shearing. There will also be demonstrations of shearing, spinning, weaving and working sheep dogs, plus a fashion show.
More than 30 different breeds of sheep will be on exhibit. This year the Natural Colored Wool Growers Association is having its national show as part of the festival.
A large part of the show is devoted to the sale of crafts by more than 200 crafts people -- "Lots of sheepy things," says Martha Berger, who coordinates the crafts booths.
Among the crafts will be braided and hooked rugs, handmade brooms, wrought ironwork from a blacksmith, hand-woven shawls and blankets, quilts, coverlets, wall hangings, hand-knitted sweaters and other wool garments, stained glass, photographs, paintings, baskets, pillows, pottery, woodenware, jewelry, wool toys and stuffed animals plus paintings and other artworks.
Other items for sale include dyes, yarns, wool fleece, sheepskins, looms and other spinning and weaving supplies, herb plants, ewe milk cheese, sheepskin slippers, festival cookbooks, how-to books and farm supplies. Shawls made in the contest will be auctioned to the highest bidder on Saturday afternoon.
A schedule of seminars goes on throughout both days. On Saturday, the topics include sewing with wool, choice and care of a spinning wheel and choosing fleeces for spinning. Next Sunday, lectures include one on advanced dying techniques and designing with color by Lee Anderson, who makes some of the sweaters worn by Bill Cosby.
Next Sunday afternoon, fairgoers can drop in and learn to spin from members of the West Friendship 4-H Club.
There will be food booths serving lamb in the festival food building and scattered throughout the grounds of the festival. Free samples and free recipes will be available.
Square dancing and Scottish country dancing exhibitions plus performances by a hammered dulcimer player, Maggie Sansone, will also be offered.
At 11 a.m. next Sunday there will be a lamb cook-off. The winning lamb recipes from past festivals plus recipes from other cooks have been published in "The Sheep and Wool Festival Collector's Cookbook," Volumes I and II. Copies of the two
cookbooks will be sold at the festival.
The festival will be held from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. next Sunday. Admission and parking are free. There is good access for the handicapped to parking and to the festival.
The Howard County Fairgrounds are located near the intersection of Route 144 and Fairgrounds Road in West Friendship.
Nine artists will have an open studio tour from noon to 5 p.m. today at 1501 and 1511 Guilford Ave.
The tour, sponsored by School 33 Art Center, will include functional sculpture by D'Antell, paintings by Kathleen Gutcher and Singy Tevis, paintings and prints by Cid Collins Walker and works by T. J. Fu and Luca Colletta at 1501 Guilford. At 1511 Guilford, there will be sculpture by Jim Opasik, mixed media by Mary Deacon Opasik and paintings by Pamela Phillips.
Admission to this exhibition and sale is free.