All that wool and still very cool

Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival draws the eaters, the spinners and the hip to fairgrounds


Lamb meat - in the form of ribs, kebabs, burgers, gyros and sausage. A rainbow of skeins of wool. Wooden spinning wheels, sheepskin rugs and the baaing, fleecy creatures themselves.

All things ovine were showcased and for sale yesterday at the 33rd annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, which runs through today. The free weekend festival, billed as the largest of its kind in the country - featuring spinning, weaving, knitting, abundant food and cook-off contests, folk music, and plenty of wool for sale - always takes place the first weekend of May.

In past years, about 50,000 visitors have flocked to the two-day event, sponsored by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association, at the Howard County Fairgrounds. This year, organizers said they expected up to 90,000 attendees.

Knitting and handcraft enthusiasts were particularly in their element. "It's the highlight of my year," said Lanna Ray of Silver Spring, as she clutched a bag of autumn-hued mohair and wool fiber. "These colors are fabulous. I've already taken one cartload out to the car. As a spinner, I try to get enough fiber to last the whole year."

Seas of cars were parked in rows across the grassy slopes of the fairground. License plates revealed visitors from up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Waiting in line was part of the deal: for parking, for lamb delicacies, for sage-colored festival T-shirts, which depicted sheep with balls of yarn for bodies.

David and Nancy Greene, who helped found the festival more than 30 years ago, fed the masses with lamb from their White Hall farm. They raise and slaughter about 160 lambs a year. One-quarter of them are grilled for the weekend event. "Soon as this one's over, we start to plan for next year," David Greene said.

Maryland doesn't have an unusually large number of sheep farms, but the region does have a lot of lamb enthusiasts, Greene said.

"We have something they don't have in Texas: the 5 [million] to 6 million people living in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area," he said. "That area is ethnically lamb-eating. Muslim, Hispanic, Jewish, Greek - you name it."

Hundreds of sheep and lambs - Scottish Blackface, freshly shorn Suffolk-Hampshire crossbreeds - were for sale. "What's the big one?" asked Julianna Sukel, 2, crouched outside a family of caged black Finnsheep.

"That's the mommy," said her mother, Chantal Sukel of Alexandria, Va.

"I want to go see the bunnies," Julianna told her mother and grandmother, Rosario Almanzar, of Gaithersburg. Angora rabbits, alpaca, and angora goats (whose fleece yields mohair) and their wool products were also on display.

That the festival attracted a young, hip crowd underscored the point that knitting is no longer just your grandmother's craft.

"A lot of people don't realize that it's replaced yoga as the way to find your center," said fairgoer Carma Halterman, chef and owner of Carma's Cafe in Baltimore, a coffee and sandwich shop popular with students from the Johns Hopkins University. Though Halterman's Charles Village cafe is closed most evenings, she opens the shop for Wooly Wednesdays each week for knitters, both amateur and experienced.

Amy Barnes, 26, and Christine Gould, 29, environmental contractors from Gaithersburg, embodied that new generation for whom it is cool to crochet.

"There are a lot of younger patterns now and a lot of fun yarns," said Barnes, who recently knit a pig-shaped cell phone case. "We knit when we watch TV. It's keeps you busy, and it's a good stress release."

The festival continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the fairgrounds off Interstate 70 in West Friendship.

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