The Fiber Festival of New England is a joint effort of the New England Sheep and Wool Growers Association and the Eastern States Exposition. This year’s event featured a display of animals, fiber products, demonstrations and lectures in the Mallary Complex in West Springfield, MA.
It is amazing to watch craftspeople in action, using fiber produced on New England farms to carry out their many and varied businesses and hobbies. Those involved in fiber production would be at a definite disadvantage if there were not a local demand for their product. Conversely, without regional alpaca, llama, rabbit and sheep breeders supplying their needs, the quality of artisans’ products would be greatly compromised.
Taking the raw product and converting it into a form that knitters, weavers or hookers can use in his or her work is a labor-intensive process. For many, it would appear to be purely a labor of love. The intensity and enthusiasm with which many of the craftspeople approach their work is a study unto itself.
The first room at the festival was devoted very largely to exhibits on animals and their byproducts. Angora rabbits play a role as fiber producers. but sheep still constitute the primary source of fiber. At one point in time, New England sheep husbandry was huge, supplying a textile industry that was dominant nationally from the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s. Wool still is unmatched in so many ways as the preferred material for the manufacture of winter attire. One large area of the festival was devoted to the sale of raw wool.
For those not into crafting articles with their own hands, there were an ample numbers of outlets that offered ready-to-wear articles. Not everything was made of fiber, however — one booth featured goat cheese while others offered goat milk soap. A display of particular interest was presented by a Connecticut couple who have taken up silk spinning, a craft that in the mid 1700s was a cottage industry in New England.
Several times during the course of the two-day event, a sheep shearing demonstration was conducted by professional shearer Andy Rice, who gave the audience an overview of the history of shearing, as well as a quick how-to. While it takes a long time to become proficient in the art, Rice made shearing look easy.
In conjunction with the sheep shearing, there was a fashion show featuring hand-crafted clothing.
For those attendees who wished to acquire a more in-depth understanding of a particular topic, there were hands-on workshops. Kristen Walsh presented a beginner’s class on making three-dimensional flowers using wet felting techniques. An Introduction to Tunisian Crochet was offered by Heather McQueen. This craft is said to combine the intrigue and beauty of crochet stitches with the finished look of a knit fabric. Another workshop offered by Kristen Walsh instructed students on how to transform wool into a beautiful angel which might be used to adorn a Christmas Tree.
For those with an interest in the history of wool production, there were numerous displays featuring antique spinning wheels, which were demonstrated by members of various organizations dedicated to keeping the art alive. To complement these displays were 2014 models of the same machines, which have a somewhat sleeker appearance but function in essentially the same way. Some vendors offered supplies to fill the needs of craftspeople. Many of these handmade items were works of art themselves.