I have made the pilgrimage that almost every knitter and fiber-lover hopes to make at one time or another. I went to the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck. I stayed with my friend Madeline, who’s been a close friend since the end of high school. She is a librarian at SUNY New Paltz by day, and a real fibercraft original by night.
Even though we got to the festival right as it opened on Saturday, the line of cars at the entrance was my first clue that this festival would be bigger than anything I’ve lately seen. Thousands of people already packed the dozens of vendor’s buildings. A line had already formed at the ladies room. Almost everyone had an item of knitwear on their person.
I don’t think I’m agoraphobic, and I grew up in a town of about 20,000 and went to large events and such, but I’ve seldom felt as overwhelmed by a crowd as I did shuffling through the vendor areas at Rhinebeck. People were veering and stopping everywhere, and every stall felt packed with spectators. Though Madeline was keen to find some bright, monotone yarn and I was eager to browse for marketing ideas for my own products, I soon found that I needed to retreat from the vendor areas.
So I went to where I knew I’d be comfortable:
At the sheep barn, far fewer people were about, and shepherds busily clipped their critters for shows and exhibits. The tent swelled with loud and continuous baaing (it’s fall, and there are rams and ewes here, meeting for the first time and probably hoping to set up a date). Despite the increase in noise, I felt my shoulders relax and my heartrate slow. I think it’s important that I not retire from crowded events completely, but I would do well to pace myself when I attend them.
I spent some time scoping out farms that might have good rams available. I liked the look of these handsome, natural-colored Rambouillets, but I don’t think I can use a super-fine Rambouillet without fleece-rot trouble, given my climate and management style.
I ran into Sarah from Ruppert’s Corriedales, fitting a gorgeous ewe for show in the afternoon. Ruppert’s Corriedales was where Earl Scruggs, the sire of Bobolink, Timberdoodle and Meadowlark came from. For whatever reason,show Corriedales should have whitened legs but standard-colored fleece. You can see that clearly in the photo I took. I let Sarah know how pleased I’ve been with my Ruppert’s ram’s offspring.
While at the sheep tent, I met some shepherds who raise Bluefaced Leicesters. A few of you who have spoken to me lately know my little ambition: I am thinking of adding Registered Bluefaced Leicesters to my operation. The details and economics of this idea are enough to deserve their own post, which they will soon receive. What I did learn from the shepherds I spoke to suggested to me that BFLs (as they’re known in fiber circles) offer a lot of complementary traits to my flock. They’re also really cute, if you like a big, roman nose and a round, bushy shape. The breed is known for producing twins and triplets, which I will need to improve my lamb production income. Their fleeces, while small, require less skirting because they lack belly, leg, and head wool. My only question is whether they are cold-hardy enough for my conditions, but they’re raised in Michigan, Ohio, and other states in the northern tier of the U.S., so I have to suppose that we’ll be okay with the shelter I typically provide. I was excited to meet another shepherd from the Albany, NY area who is also considering bringing BFLs to New England, as there aren’t many large flocks locally. Having a ram-trading buddy would be a big time- and money-saver in this effort.
Madeline and I met up again later in the day, as I declined to drag her through my shop-talk in the sheep barn. We enjoyed some food, and walked through some vendor areas again. Looking at the wares more calmly, this time, I could see just how large an inventory I would have to amass to even make a dent at this show. I have never seen so much yarn, anywhere, ever, and I have been to WEBS several times.
Madeline and I then looked over the fleeces in the fleece tent. They were looking a little picked-over, but I learned a great deal from touching the finer wools. You can really tell a lot about a breeder’s objectives by how closely their fleeces align to breed standards.
As I left the festival for a five-hour drive back to Vermont, I felt a little jealous of this shepherd taking home one of the amazing sheep they saw in the barn!