Friday, October 8, 2010

Bringing in the Fleece

This year, I got to see another side of the lovable Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, by helping out as a volunteer on the Fleece Sale.

A fleece sale, for those not familiar with the concept, is a chance for handspinners to buy a raw, unprocessed whole fleece, just as it comes from the freshly shorn sheep. Raw fleeces are full of all kinds of stuff: bits of weeds and vegetable matter that has clung to the sheep, fresh moist natural lanolin, pleasant ripe animal smells, and -- most of all -- possibility.

The SVFF fleece sale is juried, meaning the fleeces are inspected for quality by an expert judge before being admitted into the sale. It's a big job for the two experts, and so there are opportunities for willing volunteers to help with the physical labor, listen, and learn.

The day before the festival begins, the shepherds bring their fleeces to the judges to be evaluated and entered in the sale. Some bring just a couple of fleeces, and others bring half a dozen or more, each a large double-armful in its own plastic bag.

Now the volunteers swing into action. One writes up tags, noting down the shepherd and the breed or hybrid of the sheep that supplied each fleece, and often the individual sheep's own name. Others empty the fleece from its plastic bag onto a mesh table, loose debris falling through onto the concrete floor.

Spreading out a fleece so it can be examined is a careful job. A skilled shearer will have trimmed the fleece off a sheep all in one big piece that hangs together in the shape of the animal itself, a phantom sheepskin rug. It's easy enough to dump the bundled fleece out of its bag, but the mass of wool must then be gently picked open and fully unrolled on the table, without the loosely linked clumps of wool becoming tangled and breaking apart from the delicate whole-body shape.

After the fleece is unrolled, the volunteers check it over quickly for any bits and pieces that should come out. The shepherd will already have taken out the mucky parts and poor quality areas around the hindquarters. But still, there are smaller things to be removed, like second cuts (bits of short, unusable wool where the shepherd ran the clippers over an overlapping spot again), or burrs and noticeable bits of hay or weeds.

Then the expert judges are called over. They plunge experienced hands in to feel the fineness of the wool. They check the length of the fibers in the locks of wool. They test small clumps for soundness, both visually and by a good sharp lengthwise tug. They assign the fleece to a category, be it fine, medium, long, or double-coated. Sometimes the category is clear from the sheep's breed, and sometimes the judges rely on their own assessment, particularly for hybrids, which can vary widely from one individual to another. They write notes on the fleece's tag, commenting on such things as the quality of the wool, the color, the length, the cleanness, or appropriate uses, to provide guidance for buyers.

When the judges finish with each fleece, the volunteers fold and roll it into a neat ball, stuff it back into its bag, and cart it to its spot on the long table of fleeces for sale.

It wasn't glamorous work. The temperature hit 98 degrees that day. Each fleece typically weighed 4-7 pounds. The wool was full of dirt and grease, and our hands shone from the lanolin. We were grubby and hot. But it was fascinating, and I learned a lot. One thing I found interesting is that the judges actually did reject a few fleeces, for instance, if there was a weak spot in the length of the wool resulting from the animal having an episode of poor health as it grew. Truly, only good-quality fleeces were accepted for the sale.

And the day was at times poignant. I met shepherds who handed over a number of fleeces with obvious pride, shepherds who hoped their fleeces would sell to bring in some money to keep the flock fed, and one dear lady who shears her sheep with ordinary scissors and great care.

To a spinner's eyes, a fleece is just beautiful. Just look at that rich natural color, with the tips of the sheep's coat lightened a little bit by its year in the sun.

Lovely as they are, though, I resisted buying one the next day when they went on sale. I've processed one small fleece so far, and it takes some time. The lanolin and dirt have to be washed out in a series of hot baths, the fleece laid out to dry, and the sweet-smelling clumps of clean wool carded or combed, and put away ready for spinning. I'm game to do it again, but not just yet. I've got a lot of work to do first to clear the decks.

So it wasn't easy, but I held back from buying both there and the following week at the Fall Fiber Festival, where I strolled purely as a shopper.

I simply gave the fleece sale tent a wide berth and stayed as far away as possible from temptation. :)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Festival Season

The bright crisp days are here, and that can mean only one thing: it's fall, and festival season! OK, only two things, if you want to be picky. :)

Yes, in my annual autumn frenzy of festival-going, I've been to two of my favorite festivals in the last two weekends. Of course, they all seem to be my favorites, but then, they're all wonderful in different ways.

The first, the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival, in Berryville, Virginia, was moved this year for the first time to late September (to avoid a conflict with the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair). And the Fall Fiber Festival, on the Montpelier Estate near Orange, Virginia, was held as usual in early October.

Both are quite small, relative to the behemoths that are the Rhinebeck, New York, festival in the fall (or so I hear, never having been) and -- oldest and biggest of them all -- the mighty Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in the spring. The tidy small size of the Shenandoah and Montpelier festivals, in fact, is one of their great virtues, as there's room to stroll around and browse without being utterly overwhelmed by crowds and overstimulation. And there's plenty to look at, between the shopping, the fiber-bearing animals on display, and at Montpelier, the sheepdog competitions going on all day nearby.

My experience with the Shenandoah festival this time was a bit different from past years, as I got a chance this year to help out in a small way by volunteering! Of course, that meant less time just strolling around shopping and taking pictures. So the visual souvenirs here are from the Montpelier festival. Rest assured, though, there were plenty of treasures at both festivals.

By the time the Montpelier festival rolled around, the weather had cooled, blessedly, to the point that festival-goers could actually wear some of their hand-crafted productions. I love seeing the knitters showing off their hand-knit sweaters, lace shawls, berets, and just about anything else that can be fashioned out of wool.

It was a jolly day entirely. World's-most-patient-husband was a good sport and chauffeured me on the beautiful but long-ish country drive to the festival. I browsed and shopped and wandered and chatted to my heart's content while he napped and read a book he'd brought along. I even parked myself on a picnic bench for a bit to spin some newly bought fiber just for the joy of playing with my new toys.

Oh yes, indeed there was some newly bought fiber. Some of it is here, braids of wool to spin in bright citrus colors and dusky subtle colors and whatever else was appealing. Let's see, the one on the left is a merino "pigtail" from Stony Mountain Fibers in Virginia. The two in the center are a wool-and-seacell blend from Creatively Dyed in South Carolina, and the one on the right is blue-face leicester wool from River's Edge Fiber Arts, here at the festival all the way from Michigan.

And then there were heaps of wool-mohair blend roving, which is lots of fun to spin. The orangey-tan roving on the left is wool, kid mohair, and a touch of sparkle, in the Bronze colorway from Steam Valley Fiber Farm in Pennsylvania. Charmingly, the label they provided tells me exactly which goats and sheep are responsible for the fiber, by name. So, thank you, TinMan, Neptune, and the rest. :)

The two pretty rovings on the right, one in rose and the other in a soft coffee color, are from Kid Hollow Farm in Virginia, which has provided me with many, many hours of spinning pleasure before. My tall-elegant-mom, my trim-athletic-dad, and I all have accessories or sweaters I've spun and knitted from Kid Hollow fiber. The rose colorway is called Puerto Rico, and the buff is called Chestnut. This time, I think I may spin a strand in each of the two colors and ply them together.

And that little twirly thing? Wait, how did that get in there? It's a Tom Dyak drop spindle from DyakCraft (formerly Grafton Fibers). I didn't really need another spindle, but those mischievous River's Edge ladies had it right there, where I couldn't help seeing it, with its cheery bright colors.

Really, what could I do? :)