Kristen Rosser, a professional sheep shearer and textile artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, adeptly woman-handles her shearing of Bumble, a Border Cheviot sheep owned by Mariam Harper of Swamp Oak Farm in Lewiston, Maryland. Bumble, a muscular ram weighing more than 200 pounds, protested mightily against his involvement in the Festival’s sheep shearing demonstration.
If you’re a fiber artist from the Mid-Atlantic region, you’ve probably at least heard of the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival. Held annually by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland, it’s considered one of the two premier agriculture-based fiber festivals– the other is New York’s Sheep and Wool Festival held the third weekend in October in Rhinebeck, New York.
But unlike New York’s festival, which competes with numerous other similar fall festivals up and down the East Coast, Maryland’s Festival is held the first full weekend in May, making it “a good early show to open the season for the fiber community,” said Andy Lannan of Madder Root in Maine. “It’s really well known,” he continued, “People come from pretty far around because they know what they’re going to get and that it’ll be a good experience when they come.”
Carrie Golias, owner and designer of Carried Away Designs in Wool from Ohio, helps a customer at her booth in the Main Exhibition Hall, another expansive space full of vendors and other sheep and wool related exhibitors.
One of several vendors traveling a lengthy distance to sell at the Festival, this was Lannan’s and his wife Christina’s third year of participation. Their experiences, however, mirrored that of other vendors who had been coming for many more years. Sharing a booth with Rachel Jones of On the Round, a fellow Maine fiber artist who does small-batch hand-dyed yarns, Lannan noted that “we make project bags and other accessories for knitters and crocheters, offering something unique besides just yarn.”
That unique product advice was also echoed by other longer-term vendors. “It’s not necessarily a first come, first serve type of application process,” said Carl Koop of Bijou Basin Ranch in Elbert, Colorado. Instead, he feels, the Festival is looking to maintain a “diverse set of products.” Of course, Koop and his wife Eileen, along with the collaboration of several indie yarn dyers, raise and sell the epitome of that diversity: yak fibers and yarn from the yak’s combed downy under fibers.
Dr. Micheal Salisbury, Chair of the Department of Agriculture at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, answers questions about the fleece judging at the Fleece Judges Q&A.
Carl Koop (center in white t-shirt), one of the owners of Bijou Basin Ranch in Elbert, Colorado, helps a customer at his outdoor booth located near the top of Midway Boulevard.
Although it was late Saturday when Koop and I talked, Koop noted that the weather, alternating all afternoon between threatening overcast and misty rain, had “not slowed the customer flow one bit. People plan all year to come here,” he said, and those plans often include planning for not so ideal weather to engage with their favorites in the yarn community. Add in the Festival’s proximity to Washington, D.C.—less than an hour’s drive—and your customer base quickly expands not only nationally, but also internationally.
Kris Miller of Spruce Ridge Studios in Howell, Michigan further elaborated on Koop’s experiences with the vendor application process. “You need to be true to your craft as a fiber oriented business because you’re never guaranteed that you’re going to be here from year to year,” she said.
A plethora of fiber arts goodies can be found in Barns 3 and 4, half of the four outside barns dedicated to vendors’ booths.
Though her drive is not anywhere near the Koops’ multi-day drive, she feels the large numbers that the Festival attracts makes it fully worth their own very long day of driving. “It’s always better to talk to people face-to-face about your craft,” she said. A teacher and supplier of original primitive rug hooking patterns, Miller explained: “You can always read a book, but seeing the patterns and colors in person is more powerful than trying to figure it out yourself with just pictures online.”
In fact, all the vendors interviewed concurred that the Festival amply justified all the time and effort needed to prepare for such a large venue. All agreed that more than income, the Festival’s reputation continues to generate both customers and interest long after the last sheep has headed back home. Indeed, for 45 years, despite the ‘Maryland’ in its name, the Festival has demonstrated that its reach not only extends well beyond that of any regional event but continues to attract fiber folks both nationally and internationally.
Joan Kasura is a designer, business journalist, guest blogger, and feature writer. In the latter role, she specializes in writing in-depth profiles of creatives as well as community leaders from the Baltimore-D.C. region. A civil prosecutor in a prior life, she has often been tapped by specialty magazines to translate legalese into plain English. She recently returned to the fiber arts, one of her first loves, to assist her daughter in making fabric-based Montessori materials. Thanks to that experience along with encouragement from knitting and crochet designer Lily Chin, who she reconnected with at last year’s Sheep & Wool Festival, she is not only pulling together her own blog on practical needlework tips and techniques, but also using her wide-ranging fiber arts knowledge to assist other creatives in keeping up with content on their own websites, newsletters, and blogs. Contact her by writing laneedlelady at gmail.com.