The fiber festival is a unique and specific kind of yarn experience. Differing from a retreat or educational conference, a fiber festival has its roots in connecting small-scale fiber producers and makers to fiber enthusiasts who are looking for specialty products and to those who are curious about where yarn comes from.
Many of the modern fan favorites in the United States started at small animal shows or educational events hosted by local sheep associations or artisan organizations, and grew into the full-fledged fiber experience we recognize today.
Most fiber festivals have an educational component—whether formal classes or short demonstrations, or both—a fiber animal show, fleece judging, a showcase, finished goods competitions, and a juried vendor area that carries a mix of products that are not easily sourced in traditional retail spaces. They are generally run by non-profit organizations and a volunteer board. Some have paid staff or stipend positions, but rely heavily on volunteers. Many festivals are free and open to the public, although some do charge a small admission fee.
In this category, and not an exhaustive list by any means, are shows such as New York Sheep and Wool, and Maryland Sheep and Wool, that are located near large urban populations and rural growers. Southeastern Animal Fiber Festival in North Carolina, Michigan Fiber Festival, and Wisconsin Sheep and Wool, are situated in the American heartland with large concentrations of spinners and weavers. The Estes Park Wool Market is near the fiber-friendly Front Range of Colorado, and on the west coast, the California Wool and Fiber Festival is a popular destination.
Some festivals have a specific mission, such as Black Sheep Gathering in Oregon, focused on naturally colored fiber, and the Taos Wool Festival that celebrates the wools and makers of New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas. Outliers are shows like Dallas Fiber Festival and Salida Fiber Festival that, while not having an animal component, have a strong showing of specialty fiber vendors.
Breaking in to the show circuit
Unlike shows held in hotels and conference centers, fiber festivals can take on the feeling of a campout, since many vendors and animal exhibitors stay on the grounds where the festival is held or in nearby campgrounds. Generally speaking, these shows have less expensive booth fees than a show held in a hotel or conference center and have fewer associated move-in/move-out expenses. However, they can be extremely competitive to get into, and if you give up your spot one year, you might not get it back the next. This leads to frustration for new vendors.
“Persistence and creativity pay off,” says Kimberly Perkins of Cat Mountain Fibers. “I’ve been on the show circuit for ten years and I just got into Maryland Sheep and Wool.”
Perkins, who specializes in small batches of hand-dyed yarns of different fiber types and construction, also serves on the Taos Wool Festival Board and travels regularly to hotel shows, such as Stitches and Vogue Knitting Live. Her audience at conference shows is largely knitters, crocheters, and a smattering of spinners and weavers looking for the latest yarn to use in their projects. Fiber festivals tend to draw a wide range of folks, from those who are looking for raw fleeces and yarn, to those who aren’t makers and want finished goods and appreciate buying from local or regional artisans. “The conferences are where I find most of my wholesale clients, but I sell more at fiber festivals.
A farmer’s market for fiber
“I think of the Taos Wool Festival as a farmer’s market for fiber,” says Merce Mitchell, Chair of the Mountain and Valley Wool Association Board (MAVWA), who produces the annual festival, and owner of Vortexyarns in Taos. Unlike a hotel show where almost anyone with a related product is welcome to buy a booth and exhibit their wares, many fiber festivals are juried. “Jurying the vendors for this festival requires countless hours of evaluating what mix of products serve the mission of our organization, which is to support our region’s animal fiber industry in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. We jury based on residency; sources and production of animal fiber; involvement in MAVWA; value added by the applicant to their fiber products; diversity; quality; and presentation. We also try to maintain a balance of the various animal fibers and fiber arts represented each year. It can be a complex process!”
Unlike a farmer’s market that requires a weekly commitment and doesn’t deliver to a target audience, fiber festivals put the spotlight on raw materials and related value-added products. Laura Todd, Director of Black Sheep Gathering, guides a festival that recently grew out of its old location, but has worked hard to keep up the intimacy of the show. Vendors are curated to offer a diverse group of products and every vendor must have sixty percent animal content in their offerings. “In recent years we have had a run of folks who hand dye sock yarn. They are beautiful and an important part of our show, but we want to encourage more diversity and originality.”
The fiber festival circuit is invaluable for producers who focus on breed-specific products. Amy Manko of Ross Farm offers minimally processed, breed-specific, 100% natural wool from eleven different breeds and takes the fiber all the way from hoof to hank. Backed by a lot of land and an MBA, she and her husband, Scott, a.k.a. Scooter Pie the Shepherd Guy, do upwards of 15 shows a year, which is scaled back from the 20 to 30 they used to do. They also have a retail space separate from the farm and they don’t do wholesale. The festival circuit is the best venue for their specialty product. (Manko was bottle feeding a baby lamb during our conversation—a farmer’s work is never done.)
The Ross Farm’s booth at New York Sheep and Wool offers a variety of breed-specific yarns, tools, and finished goods, and shows off patterns made with their yarn.
Photo courtesy of Amy Manko
“About 2% of my fleeces are sold to handspinners, because they are so truly exceptional and deserve to be spun by hand. I make more money selling finished product retail than if I sell off my raw materials or finished goods at a lower price.”
With lots of new, enthusiastic flock owners showing up in this space, Manko’s best advice to those who want to run a sheep-based enterprise, is to scale up and diversify before you decide to be a vendor. She advises that if you are a farmer who produces only a handful of fleeces a year, to either enter them in the fleece show or sell them to someone larger. “A dozen fleeces is not enough fiber to turn into commercial yarn at a profit.” Manko suggests using the fleece-judging route to get valuable feedback on your fleeces, as well as the sale.
The trend towards open judging allows festival attendees a valuable glimpse into the process of evaluating fleece. Shown here is judge Jay Begay, judging the fleece entries in front of a live audience at the Taos Wool Festival. Sharon Ewing is recording the highlights to offer feedback to the growers.
Photo courtesy of Liz Gipson
While a serious part of the fiber festival mix, there isn’t always a crossover between the fiber producers who vend, and the sheep show. The majority of the sheep shows provide welcome visitor entertainment and education, experiential learning for youth and adults, and the all-important bragging rights. Read the show requirements carefully and do your research on the judge and judging criteria to make sure your animal is a good fit for the show. The focus of these shows tends to be on animal conformation and meat production, and not on fiber production, although it depends on the show. Festivals such as Estes Park Wool Market put their entire sheep show focus on the fiber. Julie Bishop of Sister Sheep, has a small handspinning flock with her sister and a close friend. “We got into this world through Roy and Myrtle Dow, breeders who were pivotal in the early days of the festival. They encouraged us to show our sheep. We learned a ton, but we got our best feedback at the fleece show. Our focus was always on the fiber and not creating the perfect looking sheep.” Bishop’s best commercial venue is Etsy and local handspinners. “We go to the festivals for the opportunity to network and to learn.”
From farm to festival
Robin Lynde runs Meridian Jacobs, a highly diversified sheep-based business. She has a farm shop where she sells fleece, yarn from her farm and others sourced locally, and finished goods. Lynde is highly creative in how she promotes her farm including being plugged into the California Fibershed, serves a board member of the Northern California Fibershed Coop, being active on social media and blogging, attending a variety of shows in various capacities, and running a farm club for adults. (Stephaney Wilkes, author of the popular new release Raw Material Working Wool In the West, got her early experiential learning through Lynde’s Farm Club.)
“It is hard to say which thing I do is most important to my business. They are all important and get me new names for my mailing list, which is an important vehicle for encouraging customers.” Lynde has a booth at her local festival, Lambtown, because the community expects to see her there. “Because it is fun to take a road trip with sheep, I head to Black Sheep Gathering every so often to show them. It is mostly for the bragging rights, but it is important to show up and make it known you have sheep, particularly heritage breeds like mine.” Lynde also teaches at various festivals and sells finished goods at Fibershed events.
Robin Lynde with her prize-winning sheep, Honey. Bragging rights secured!
Photo courtesy of Robin Lynde
Most of the folks I talked to reported that the general health of the fiber festival is strong, compared to a decade ago. The general fiber-buying public is more educated on fiber breeds and value locally-sourced materials, and minimally-processed yarns. There are also many more venues besides festivals for those seeking these materials. Show producers have an opportunity to position their role in the fiber space front and center. The trend towards open judging, more on-site education, encouraging diversity, and stronger social media presence, is positive and will create the fiber festival environment of tomorrow. Boards have the constant challenge of encouraging new leadership and training the next crop of judges, show superintendents, and vendor coordinators, along with the countless hours it takes to run the event itself.
Do your homework
If you are interested in vending at these types of shows, be sure your product is a good fit for this environment. If possible, attend the show first. Getting to know the show will help you make your best pitch. Do your homework and highlight the uniqueness of your product, and make sure that you have enough to stock a booth with a variety of products. If you apply and don’t get in, listen to the feedback and how that meshes with your business goals.
Education is often a big component at fiber festivals, and teacher pay varies widely. Some pay teachers the going rate or work on a revenue share model. Many festivals draw heavily from regional educators, so your local or regional show may be the best place to start. Like most venues, they look for teachers who will partner with them to fill classes. With this in mind, these venues may or may not be a good fit for your goals and where you are in your teaching career. Amy Mielke Schroer of Mielke’s Fiber Arts has taught at a variety of fiber festivals and venues, “Be prepared to teach onsite in classrooms that vary from discrete rooms to open areas with very few barriers between you and the next class.”
Regardless of where you fit in this world, get out and enjoy a festival. They are a valuable part of our maker universe and you just never know what your take-away will be.
Clara Parkes of Knitters Review has a good list of shows that include fiber festivals on her website.
A round-up of show reports from Fiber Festivals in past CIA journals.
Liz Gipson of Yarnworker is steadily crossing a long list of fiber festivals off her life list. This year, she is thrilled to be teaching four workshops at Maryland Sheep and Wool. Her local show is the Taos Wool Festival. Check out her Rigid Heddle Road Trip video from last year to get a virtual peek at this festival and the surrounding area.