Fiber enthusiasts from all over New England came together for the seventh annual Fiber Festival that took place Nov. 5-6 at the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, MA. The event is put together each year by the New England Sheep and Wool Growers Association (NESWGA) in order to promote the use of wool and other natural fibers and related products to the general public.
“It’s as diversified a product as we’ve ever had,” NESWGA President Kevin Woolam said. “There is more finished product with everything from fleeces to pelts to yarns and roving to your finished sweaters, jackets, scarfs, mittens and the accessory items such as buttons.”
Woolam says that part of the reason for the product diversity is due to the number of new exhibitors who are coming from farther away to showcase their products. This year there were a total of 189 exhibitors, 44 of which came from outside of New England. This is up from last year which had a total of 170 exhibitors.
“Every year it’s been a 15 percent to 20 percent growth,” Woolam said. “We have a seven to 10 percent turnover rate with vendors each year so we have a lot of new faces every year. There are probably 25 first time exhibitors this year. If you walk around the building, you’ll see people coming around from a fair distance. It helps drive the exhibitors who are here locally. Sometimes a little friendly competition doesn’t hurt. The bigger the event gets the better it is for everybody.”
First time exhibitor Barb Callahan traveled all the way from Venice, FL with her husband Joe to share her expertise in using vintage linens, buttons, hankies and trimming to create stylish and easy to make clothing and accessories. Barb, who is a nationally recognized designer, teacher and lecturer, has designed and constructed one of a kind garments using her label “Barb Originals” for over 30 years. Despite her extensive background in the industry she came away impressed with the different types of wool product that she saw at the festival.
“There is some good creativity going on here that I don’t see in every place,” Callahan said. “Here they are more creative in how they process it and spend a lot of time on it.”
In addition to being an ideal holiday shopping opportunity for the upcoming holiday season the festival is also a great educational experience for visitors to learn about how animals contribute to the fiber industry.
While browsing through live animal displays, which included llamas, alpacas, sheep, and rabbits, attendees were able to learn some interesting facts about wool. For instance, alpaca wool is actually warmer than sheep’s wool and has no lanolin (a wax secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool bearing animals, which makes it hypoallergenic). Alpaca wool is also naturally water repellent and difficult to ignite on fire.
Another interesting tidbit has to do with German Angora rabbit wool which is actually much warmer and lighter than most other wools due to the hollow core of the Angora fiber.
Fourteen-year-old Megan Higgins and her 10-year-old sister Cademce were among those enjoying the educational experience that the festival had to offer. For them the festival also provided a perfect opportunity to help raise money for a youth organization that is affiliated with the NESWGA known as the New England Youth Sheep Show (NEYSS). The event usually takes place during the third weekend in July each year and includes activities such as fitting, showmanship, breed classes, market lamb, quiz bowl, skillathon and a fleece show.
“I’ve been doing it for five years and Cademce for three years,” Higgins said. “We joined just to be able to show our sheep more, compete with other exhibitors and make new friends. We’re selling shirts, mugs, pants and tote bags so we can raise money to rent a facility, buy awards and pay for judges.”
This year, for the first time, both sisters were also part of the fiber fashion show that is coordinated by a former 4-H leader named Kathy Rasys. Under her guidance volunteers used a full fashion runway to model various pieces of handmade clothing made from natural fibers. Crowds were astonished to see that items as stylish dresses could be made from wool, mohair, alpaca and angora fibers.
There were other educational opportunities for attendees to take part in such as the various workshops available. Those who took part in these classes learned different techniques from talented instructors such as hooking, needle felting, knitting and crochet. They even came away with finished products that they made themselves such as scarfs, rugs, portraits and figurines.
Professional sheep shearer Andrew Rice of Hogget Hill farm near Brattleboro, VT kept busy throughout the festival with a total of six sheep shearing demonstrations over two days. Crowds of people, especially children, filled the bleachers next to Rice’s demo area and watched as he sheared his flock of Cordero lambs while explaining the entire process through his microphone.
“The whole trick about shearing sheep is controlling the sheep and keeping it comfortable,” Rice explained while holding the sheep between his legs. “We control the sheep mostly with our feet.”
Rice went on to explain that sheep shearing is a necessary process because most domesticated sheep will not shed. As their wool grows longer and longer flies will lay eggs in the moist folds of their skin. The hatched maggots can eat the sheep alive. Rice also stated it was important to leave some wool behind on the sheep in order to protect it from sunburn in the summer months and to help keep it warm during the winter months.
There were plenty of other opportunities for festival attendees to get involved in such as the Make It With Wool Competition. This national competition allows contestants to select, construct and model their own garments. Make It With Wool promotes the beauty and versatility of wool fabrics and yarns and encourages creativity in sewing, knitting and crocheting. The competition was open to entrants of all ages.
The continued positive feedback from attendees is welcome news to Woolam who strives to make the Fiber Festival as consumer friendly as possible.
“The Fiber Festival was started to help promote members and give them a place to market things,” Woolam said. “It just kind of opened up to the world. We have had a very nice consistent growth curve and are trying to make things more consumer friendly each year. We opened a second ticket booth outside to bring people through faster, our food areas doubled in size and our educational exhibits changed.”
For more information on the Fiber Festival and other affiliated events visit the organizations website at www.nesheep.org .