Sheep & Wool Festival this weekend in Rhinebeck

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is one of the largest annual gatherings of fiber-arts enthusiasts in the country. And why is that? The difference between the yarns available at chain stores and the yarns brought to the festival is the difference between fast food and fine dining: One will tide you over and fill a need, but the other fills the soul.

Always held on the third full weekend in October at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, this year’s event will be held on Saturday, October 21 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, October 22 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. One-day general admission costs $12 at the gate, with a weekend pass available for $17. Discounts are available with advance purchase online at www.dutchessfair.com and for groups of 25 or more.

The Sheep and Wool Festival definitely caters to its audience. Tens of thousands of avid enthusiasts who share a fascination for tactile fibers and hand-dyed, hand-spun yarns have this event on their calendar for the following year before this festival is even over. A large number of interesting and diverse workshops that touch on every aspect of the yarn world are offered beginning two days before the festival proper, but good luck finding an open seat if you haven’t reserved one month in advance.

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Ah, but the vendors: Many fiber people go to the Sheep and Wool Festival with a little nest egg saved up to splurge on enough fabulous yarns to last the year. It’s hard to explain the passion to anyone who isn’t initiated into the fiber world, but the variety and quality of the products available will knock your socks off (and if that happens, just buy some yarn to knit another pair).

Local vendors from the Hudson Valley this year will include Blackberry Hill Farm of Hudson, Catskill Merino Sheep Farm of Goshen, White Barn Farm Sheep and Wool of New Paltz/Gardiner and Hudson Valley Sheep and Wool Company of Red Hook. (Apologies to those left off the list: There are so many vendors that I got tired counting by the letter C, and I was already at 50!) But if you’re going, check out the list on the website beforehand, because the brief descriptions will make you want to note their location at the festival. In addition to the aforementioned fabulous yarns, vendors will have raw fleece, wool roving, shawl pins, patterns, needles, hooks, books, yarn bowls (keeps the ball of yarn from running away while you’re working), felting tools…you get the idea.

Drop-in activities include a competition for the fastest knitter on chopsticks (15-minute time limit) and similar crochet and drop-spindle spinning contests.

There’s also a used equipment sale of fiber and sheep-related products. Bid on shears, feeders, lambing pens, spinning wheels, looms, carders, shuttles and more – pretty much everything except the fiber. The auction will be held in the main livestock arena on Saturday following the bred ewe, lamb and goat sale.

But while the festival does cater to the diehard yarn person, non-fiber-enthusiasts will enjoy many activities at the Sheep and Wool, too. Some are related to the animals who provide the raw materials: sheep shearings, sheepherding demos, livestock exhibits, the exotic fiber animals barn, a petting zoo and a Sunday morning Llama Parade, followed by the Leaping Llamas competition. And there will be plenty for kids to do, including “Mad Science” activities, fiber-based activities with the Saugerties/Woodstock do-it-yourself studio Fiberflame, a read-aloud and frequent canine Frisbee demos.

The festival goes on rain or shine. There is a bag check available for shoppers who want to store their purchase until they leave without having to go back out to the parking lot. Bringing a large, foldable bag with strong handles is a good idea, and using a stroller as a shopping cart is not; it clogs up the aisles for everyone else.

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