Even in a region bursting at the seams with fall festivals, the annual New York State Sheep & Wool Festival is in a category all its own. Held at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck on the third full weekend in October every year, it’s the largest such event in the country. And while anyone can attend in a casual “Let’s just wander around and see what’s going on” type of way, the strong suit of the “Sheep & Wool” is in the way that it brings together ardent fiber-arts enthusiasts – knitters, crocheters, spinners and weavers – with the fiber-producing animals that provide the makings of their craft.
The event is put on (rain or shine) by the Dutchess County Sheep & Wool Growers, who bring to the Fairgrounds a variety of their livestock, from sheep, goats and angora rabbits to alpacas and llamas. In the same way that the farm-to-table movement provides a satisfying link for “foodies” to the sources of their gourmet delicacies, the Sheep & Wool Festival brings it all home for textile aficionados.
The 43rd annual New York State Sheep & Wool Festival will be held on Saturday, October 17 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, October 18 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $12 for the day, at the gate, and $17 for a weekend pass.
One of the Festival’s main attractions is the opportunity to purchase luscious yarns of exquisite tactile quality that one won’t find anywhere else in such profusion of selection. There is a bag check, by the way, to store purchases without having to walk all the way back out to the car. (Some visitors to the Sheep & Wool Festival budget for the weekend and get their year’s worth of yarn all at once.) It’s recommended that visitors bring a foldable, large, strong bag with handles to fill. And people are asked not to use strollers as shopping carts, as some have been wont to do in recent years; it just clogs up the aisles for everyone else.
There are a number of fiber-craft demonstrations going on and workshops held, although repeat visitors know to sign up months in advance, as the classes fill up fast and are often full by Festival day. There are book-signings and lectures, competitions and shows. The perennial “Fleece to Shawl” competition on Sunday features teams of competitors who move as quickly as possible taking washed fleece through carding and spinning to weaving a completed shawl.
Non-fiber enthusiasts accompanying their friends will enjoy many of these activities and also find things unrelated to fiber to do. Where else will you see a llama parade (Sunday morning only), followed by a Leaping Llamas competition? There are numerous livestock competitions, sheepdog trials and demonstrations by Frisbee-catching dogs, as well as chefs offering cooking advice.
But at its heart, this is a show for diehard fiber devotees. Many come from out-of-town and plan the trip months in advance; speak to any local hotelier or bed-and-breakfast owner and they’ll tell you that they’ve been booked for this weekend for many months. And the Festival becomes an opportunity for handcrafters to have those intense conversations about fiber and craft that the uninitiated are mystified by: discussions of how Cormo sheep produce the softest wool (such a pleasure to work with), and what do you do when that stitch is dropped and you’re already a few rows past it before you notice?
When the Festival closes for the day on Saturday, it’s hard for some to let go of it while waiting for the gates to open again on Sunday. Knitters and crocheters are a companionable bunch; maybe it has to do with the fact that our craft is so portable, and a conversation can still be carried on, even while executing rather difficult patterns. So local yarn shops and related venues have taken to offering “Rhinebeck weekend” activities around the Festival to slake everyone’s thirst for fiber talk fully.
A Soup & Wool Evening at Morton Library in Rhinecliff
Fiber artist Carol Cypher will teach a workshop on making felted merino wool flowers, followed by a supper of homemade soups and desserts, on Saturday, October 17 at 5:30 p.m. Wine will be served. Tickets cost $35, which includes all supplies needed. Advance registration at (845) 876-2903 is requested due to limited seating, but tickets may be purchased at the door. All proceeds benefit the Morton Library.
The flowers produced in the workshop can be embellished with beading and used as accessories or home decor. Afterward, participants will enjoy three different tasty homemade soups made from fresh and local ingredients, including a veggie version, a chicken soup and a beef chili.
Library trustee Molly O’Gorman says that they’re hoping the event will serve to introduce some of the people coming to town for the Sheep & Wool Festival to the historic building in which the library is housed. “It’s an interesting place and a showpiece for the region,” she says. “We were just on the historic home tour. It’ll be fun to see how people react to our space.”
A Soup & Wool Evening, Saturday, October 17, 5:30 p.m., $35, Morton Memorial Library & Community House, 82 Kelly Street, Rhinecliff; (845) 876-2903, https://morton.rhinecliff.lib.ny.us.