Good yarn draws kids, adults to Sheep and Wool Festival

Attendees learn about shearing, buy wool and knitting supplies at nation's largest festival of its kind

  • Julia Pariser, 6, of Washington, D.C., pets one of Marilyn's Border Leicesters, from Raymond, Ohio, at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival at the Howard County fairgrounds.
Julia Pariser, 6, of Washington, D.C., pets one of Marilyn's… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
May 08, 2011|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Clayton, Dana and Edward got a crash course this weekend in where wool sweaters come from — and it's not the store.

The first strand of the story was told to the Pickett children beside a field where a pack of border collies were corralling sheep and moving them in and out of pens.

It was a well-attended demonstration at the 38th annual Sheep & Wool Festival, the largest such event in the country with thousands of participants. It's part marketplace for spinners and knitters, part family outing and part instruction from the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association.

To 4-year-old Dana, the dogs and sheep were "amazing," and that was good for her mother, Bettina Pickett of Fort Meade. She home-schools the children and had no trouble getting them to pay attention and, perhaps, learn that wool comes from sheep "fur."

Nancy Cox Starkey of Trial & Error Acres in Mount Airy was the dog handler and said the black-and-white canines are a labor-saving device on big farms. She agreed that they make excellent showmen and are able to keep the attention of even the smallest children.

"We like to be informative and enjoyable," she said.

The donation-supported festival was held at the Howard County Fairgrounds. Longtime organizing committee chairwoman Gwen Handler, who raises sheep at Hill Farm in Westminster and sells an array of colorful yarn, says the two-day event grows from year to year.

There's been a "knitting renaissance" and many people come to buy yarn and learn about the breeders behind the products. There were 40 breeds among the 1,000 sheep on hand this year. And the adults seem to like hearing a good yarn about wool as much as the kids, Handler said.

Sheep are sheared once a year, and festival-goers could watch as the animals were manipulated until their coats became giant piles of white fluff on the ground. The pros can do 200 in a day with only hand blades. There was even a shearing competition that decided which American would go to New Zealand for an international competition. This year, the winner was Emily Chamelin of Westminster, who beat out competitors from Massachusetts and Minnesota.

"This is key," said Chamelin, who learned to shear with machines 10 years ago and with hand tools three years ago. "If you don't shear the animal correctly, you won't get proper wool. We need to get the younger generation interested. There's a nationwide shortage of shearers."

The wool is collected, cleaned and colored, and sold in bunches to those who like to spin their own yarn on wooden wheels they turn with a foot pump.

Sandra Chandler came from Hunt, Texas, for the festival and had already made four trips to the car with bags of wool. She took up spinning in December. She often makes scarves and socks but hadn't yet decided what her collection of orange, cream and purple wool would become.

She could get ideas from the vendors, many of whom had samples of sweaters, rugs, scarves and other items hanging up for inspiration.

"You don't sell much if you don't give people something to see," said Andrea Colyer of Greenwood Hill Farm in Hubbardstown, Mass., who was displaying white-, black- and cream-colored skeins of yarn. "They see the sweater and buy the exact yarn to make it."

Still, some people weren't interested in learning to make a sweater, or even where wool comes from, on this warm spring day.

After a shearing demonstration, 21/2-year-old Maya Finkelstein said her favorite thing about the day was made from another animal entirely: ice cream.

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