The sixth annual Fiber Festival of New England took place Nov. 7-8 at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA. The event, put together by the New England Sheep and Wool Growers Association (NESWGA) and the Eastern States Exposition, promotes the use of wool, natural fibers and other related products.
This year 168 exhibitors were onsite showcasing their carefully crafted handmade products which included clothing, blankets, yarn, raw fleeces, spinning wheels, shawl pins, Christmas ornaments and much more. Some exhibitors didn’t even need to be onsite to sell their products. For a $2 fee NESWGA members could mail in their fleece along with the date shorn, breed of animal and producer information. The fleece sale was ongoing throughout both days of the festival. In addition to the shopping opportunities there were several other activities for participants to take part in such as workshops, competitions, demonstrations, live animal displays and even a fashion show.
“There is a full range of diversity at this event,” said Kevin Woolam, President of the NESWGA. “Instead of just raising animals and selling fleece there are now a lot more finished products out there. We are constantly adding new things to the show. This year we added a book signing and expanded our workshops to both days of the event.”
According to Woolam the Fiber Festival draws exhibitors and attendees from farther away each year. Most newcomers tend to come away with a positive experience and end up returning the following year. One reason is that this event is held indoors which shields people from the cooler temperatures during this time of year. Another reason is the friendly, considerate and helpful manner of the talented exhibitors onsite.
“I love it,” said first time attendee Elly Simard of Winthrop, Maine. “There is so much variety and talent. Even if I don’t buy anything I come away with a lot by just talking to people.”
Networking with others is something that exhibitor Fran Curran of the Hartford Artisans Weaving Center used to create a business partnership with another exhibitor at the event.
“A year ago I met the owner of North Light Fibers here at the Fiber Festival and let him know about what we do at our center,” said Curran. “We have now formed a partnership where North Light Fibers supplies the fiber and we make the product.”
The Hartford Artisans Weaving Center is located in Hartford, CT where it promotes and teaches the craft of handweaving to people with low or no vision and those 55 and older. Attendees of the Fiber Festival didn’t have to travel all the way to Hartford to learn different weaving and spinning techniques. A variety of different workshops were available throughout both days in which attendees could sit down and learn different techniques from talented instructors. These workshops included spinning yarn art, felted sheep face quilt block, miniature punch needle, needle felted sheep, Tunisian Crochet, felted landscape and folk art rug hooking.
One of the more creative events at the Fiber Festival was the fiber fashion show coordinated by former 4-H leader Kathy Rasys. Handmade clothing and items made from natural fibers — wool, mohair, alpaca and angora — were modeled by volunteers on a full fashion runway.
“Our main goal in this show is to showcase the different types of modern garments that can be made of out of wool,” said Rasys. “It is a fun way to show the public the new and interesting things that can be made out of wool and wool fibers.”
Another related event was the make it with wool competition. This is a national competition open to participants of all ages in which the competitors must choose a wool product, construct it into some type of garment and then model the garment. The goal of this event is to promote the beauty and versatility of wool fabrics and yarns. It encourages competitors to use creativity during the process of sewing, knitting or crocheting their garment.
Among the live animals on display were llamas, alpacas, sheep and rabbits. Visitors were able to learn how these animals contribute to the fiber industry by chatting with the eager owners of these animals.
The cute German Angora rabbits owned by Penelope and Andy Conklin of Cobblerock Ridge Farm LLC in Safford Springs, CT drew many visitors to their exhibit where they learned a surprising fact about rabbit wool.
“While rabbit wool is comparable to Alpaca wool it is also the warmest fiber you can get in the world,” said Andy Conklin.
Professional sheep shearer Andrew Rice of Hogget Hill Farm in Brattleboro, VT drew large crowds not only for his sheep shearing demonstrations but for his story telling skills as well. For some people who witness sheep shearing for the first time the process may seem a bit harsh so Rice took the time before the actual demonstration to explain the history and process of sheep shearing.
“Domesticated sheep cannot shed so when animal rights people say it’s cruel to shear sheep they have it backwards, it’s cruel not to share sheep,” said Rice.
For his demonstration purposes Rice brought a small flock of Cordero lambs which had never been through the shearing process before.
“These lambs are like children going to the barber for the first time,” said Rice. “They don’t understand what’s going on so you need to keep them calm while shearing them. “It’s just like the Kenny Rodgers song, you have to know how to hold them and know how to fold them,” said Rice, referring to the technique of gently bring a sheep to the ground and holding them with your legs while you shear them.
Another interesting demonstration came from The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an international, non-profit, educational organization, whose purpose is to recreate the atmosphere of the Medieval and Renaissance periods of European history. The unique setup and Medieval time period replica clothing worn by members of the local Northeastern U.S. branch constantly drew attendees to their SCA booth. Once there attendees were able to have open dialogue with the demonstrators and even try some of the spinning and weaving techniques on display.
“I have seen a lot of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation in the fiber industry in the last six years,” said Woolam. “Booths are already being filled for next year’s Fiber Festival but we have room to expand. Those interested in becoming exhibitors need to fill out an application and send a photo of their booth to be considered for next year.”
For those interested in more information on the Fiber Festival of New England they can visit the event website at www.fiberfestival.org or call 413-205-5011.