A view of the East Country Store building, and the FFA Alumni ice cream stand, from the handicap parking area.
The Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival is held the first full weekend after Labor Day. What started out in 1979 as a spring conference for shepherds, becoming the largest conference of its kind by 1992, has now morphed into Wisconsin’s biggest fiber festival, and some say it is the biggest in the Midwest. Gate receipts hit a new record for 2017, with an estimated 7,500 people attending, including vendors.
For the past 15 years, the festival has been held at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, conveniently located approximately half-way between Madison and Milwaukee.
The event boasts over 115 fiber arts-related vendors; 6 vendors specifically for shepherds, such as Nasco and Sydell; and 9 food vendors.
A small selection of the tools that are part of Ma & Pa’s rural education display and program. Their motto is “History comes alive with humor!”
The fiber arts vendors alone fill two buildings – called Country Store East and Country Store West. The Country stores are open Friday – Sunday of the festival. Many folks will attest to attending the festival solely for the shopping opportunity. In addition to an impressive representation of Midwest farms and businesses, vendors come from as far away as California, New York, Georgia, and Florida, selling wares which range across the expected gamut of wool and yarn, to spinning wheels, looms, drumcarders, and other fiber arts tools. You can even find sheep’s-milk cheese, wool-filled mattresses, goat-milk soaps, lamb, honey, finished goods such as hand-knit socks, hats, and shawls, and note-cards, calendars, and t-shirts with custom artwork for diehards, featuring all things sheep, llama, and alpaca (i.e. “I was normal a flock of sheep ago” and “Sheep Happens”).
Running Thursday through Sunday, there were over 70 fiber arts workshops taught by 36 instructors from across the nation. A highlight this year was that instead of one natural dye class, there were five, including a 2-day class on dyeing with mushrooms, and another titled, “24 Colors from One Cochineal Dye Pot.” Other classes covered topics as diverse as a creating a cobweb felt floor lamp, polymer clay, basket weaving, wood carving, and all levels of classes for spinners, knitters, and weavers.
Beginning Friday, you could find classes for both beginning and experienced shepherds, and several sheep shows, including various breed-specific events.
Competitions and contests held during the festival included quite a range of topics, from fleeces, to handspun skeins, to photography, to sheep line and costume, and even Make It With Wool.
Felted soap (wool-covered soap bars) created by The Felted Soap Lady, Barb McFadden, of Oconomowoc, WI.
Pat Hilts demonstrates spinning on a great wheel (center), with other members of the Marshall Pleasant Spinners.
A special attraction each year is the Crook & Whistle Stock Dog trials. Trials run Friday through Sunday, and this year there were over 100 dogs entered. Watching the difference between an experienced dog herding sheep through a gate versus a young dog never gets old!
Unique to this event, the festival holds an all-day class for kids, called Wooly U. It is billed as a Sheep and Fiber Camp for kids. Children from ages 8 to 16 bring a bag lunch, and spend the day customizing their Wooly U camp shirt, working on crafts that focus on wool (such as spinning, knitting, dyeing, felting, and weaving) visiting the lamb barn, watching sheep shearing, getting a fun and entertaining education in rural Wisconsin history with “Ma & Pa” and at the end of the day receive a Wooly U diploma.
For the athletically-minded, the festival also offers an unusual contest, the Walk and Knit Relay Challenge. Teams of four compete in a relay race to knit the most stitches (stockinette, in sport weight yarn on size 5 circulars) while walking. Points are awarded for most stitches knit, and the shortest lap times. Registration monies from the contest go towards youth activities related to wool.
Targhee sheep, from A& J Nevens Livestock, of Lodi, WI, in one of the sheep barns.
Some of the sheep fleeces in the fleece competition and sale.
The Make It With Wool contest has four categories based on age, and one for novelty items that has no age restriction. Items must be made from fabrics and yarns that are 60% or more wool or specialty fiber. Pre-teens receive up to three placings in state competition, but do not advance. Juniors and seniors who place advance to the national-level competition. Adult entries and novelty items are given a cash award. Sewing machines, notions, equipment, wool fabric, and other items are given as prizes at both the state and national levels. The contest boasts a wide variety of garments, some sewn, some knit, and some made with combination of techniques.
This year, Sewing with Nancy sponsored two sewing construction awards at the Make It With Wool contest, giving two $100 cash awards for the best constructed garments!
Naturally colored wool selection in the Thistle Ridge, LLC booth. The owners, Kay and David Hatch, hail from Roscoe, IL.
Tiny taste of the lovely color palette of yarns available from Mohair in Motion of White Cloud, MI.
There is so much to take in, you would have to be very disciplined to cover even half of the weekend’s attractions. The nearly 3-page schedule lists more intriguing events, such as the Skillathon (where you can test your knowledge of sheep and sheep production), silent auctions for both fiber arts enthusiasts and shepherds, a hooked rug exhibit, Hall of Breeds, a lamb dinner, and many more.
Last but not least, the festival has free parking, a tractor shuttle that runs from the parking lot to several stops around the fairgrounds all weekend, and a large on-site campground for both tents and RVs.
It is a truly amazing, inspiring event, a jewel of the Midwest. I hope you can join us in 2018!
Andrea Mielke Schroer co-owns Mielke’s Fiber Arts with her sister, Amy. Their shop is located in the bucolic, rolling hills of Mauston, Wisconsin, about a half-hour northwest of the famous Wisconsin Dells. Andrea leads the fiber arts classes and workshops. Get in touch with her at https://www.mielkesfiberarts.com/