Going “home” to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival

Warning: Long post, with a walk through past calendars, and a bit of spinning/knitting content toward the end.

Going back to Maryland

It’s hard to believe that a week from today I’m scheduled to be at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival for the first time since 2000. On Thursday morning, I’ll pick up Sharon, another former Interweave Press employee with whom I’ve almost always attended the festival, and we’ll head for the airport.

In past years, Sharon and I have gone to Maryland because Interweave sent us. We had a great time, in addition to working really hard. This year, neither of us is an Official Presence any longer (me since 2000, Sharon since 2007). We’re just going to Maryland because . . . we had a great time, and we miss the folks we regularly saw there. Not everyone we’d like to see is attending, but enough people we know will be there to make it worth the travel and the time. Because most of the people we know work the festival, as we did, we’ll probably mostly just get to say hello, but still. And we never know who we’ll meet that we don’t know yet and will be keeping up with for years to come. Plus we both could use a short break from our respective "normal" lives.

It says a lot that . . . given all the possibilities of where we could go and what we could do, either separately or as a tag-team like we used to be . . . we’ve chosen to head for a fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland, on the first weekend in May.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve wondered how many times I’ve been to the Maryland festival before (nine) and what year I first went (1992). In going through my calendars, I discovered a few things. One of them is how tightly we had to work the publication schedule out a year in advance just so we could handle the logistics of being out of town right then. Another is . . . well, I’ll wait for 1998 to talk about that realization, which ties to 2008 in ways I hadn’t put together.

Going to the festival for the first time

Not in the calendars but in memory: Linda Berry Walker first suggested that Spin-Off magazine should be represented at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival and urged us to get there. (This was before the World Wide Web, which wasn’t created until 1989, and Linda’s farm was as fine as it is now, but smaller!)

This goes back a way. I think I first met Linda at a weekend conference at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. The topic was "Wool as a Second Crop." I’ve never owned sheep, but I’m the sort of spinner who has always been interested in them (at least in wool-growing sheep . . . not all sheep do grow wool) so whenever possible I’ve attended workshops about the economics of wool, wool-grading, and the like. I already knew who Linda was, in part because she had written some articles for the early issues of Spin-Off, which I’d subscribed to since it started up in 1977 when I still lived in Washington state, but I don’t think we’d met face-to-face.

That workshop took place some time between 1983 and 1986. I think my daughter had been born by then and that we had probably moved into town (early 1982), but we definitely had not yet moved from Massachusetts to Colorado. That move happened in 1986, when I started at Interweave as book editor. A year later I was asked to take on the editing of Spin-Off as well, which I did, starting with the Spring 1988 issue (my tenure ended with the Spring 2000 issue).

From Spring 1988 until mid-1991, Linda wrote terrific columns on specific sheep breeds for Spin-Off: Border Cheviot, Border Leicester, Coopworth, Corriedale, Jacob, Karakul, Lincoln, Merino, Rambouillet, Romney, Scottish Blackface. Plus an article called "To Save a Sheep, Spin Its Fleece."

In part because of the complications of publication schedules and budgets, Linda had to drop loud hints about Maryland for several years before we got the go-ahead to check out the festival.

  • 1992 Went to Maryland to see what all the fuss was about. Came back registered for a booth for the next year.
    Friday, 5/1: 8:10a pick up Sharon. United 468 DEN-IAD, 10:41a-4:02p.
    Monday, 5/4:
    United 127 IAD-DEN, 9:15a-11:01a.
    Friday, 5/8: Spin-Off to press.

So in 1993, we were there officially for the first time. I spent my weekends demonstrating spinning in the booth. We didn’t sell things. We just spun and chatted up spinning, and sent people off to the other booths to buy Interweave’s books and magazines. I met a bunch of folks whom I only knew from online connections, through CompuServe’s fiber forum.

Because demonstrations need to attract people’s attention, for the first several years I did my weekend’s work with a Navajo spindle. Most people hadn’t seen one in action, and I enjoy spinning with this type of tool. It’s both eye-catching and efficient. Here’s a YouTube demo of the technique.

As the years went on, I made a tradition of buying something fun at the festival to spin up before I got home. Because of the circumstances, it was usually prepared fiber, dyed in a color that would catch people’s attention as they walked by. By the end of the weekend, after between fourteen and sixteen hours of spinning, the bones of my right hand were usually pretty sore but I’d had a fine time and produced several random skeins of yarn.

  • 1993 First year with a booth. Well, half-booth. Building V, booth 18B. It was a narrower-than-standard space in front of the
    utility closet, which fairgrounds staff needs to get into from time to
    time. That was fine for us, because we could just step aside from our chatting and demonstration and let them through. Building V is now called Main.
    Friday, 4/30: Summer Spin-Off to press
    Friday, 4/30 (same day): 8:15a pick up Sharon. United 348 DEN-IAD, 10:36a-4:04p.
    Monday, 5/3: United 126 IAD-DEN, 9:05a-10:50a.
    Tuesday, 5/11: Spin-Off blueline (final review of printer’s proof before magazine goes on press).

Maryland becomes a regular event

For the first several years, we flew into Dulles. Later we sometimes went into Baltimore; everything depended on which was least expensive. We’d generally arrive on Friday, set up that evening (the other booths where people actually sell things spend all day Friday setting up), and then do the demo work all day Saturday and Sunday.

Sometimes it was hot, and a few times it rained prodigiously. Mostly the weather was great and the fresh lemonade tasted fantastic. We generally didn’t have time to leave the booth to stand in line for food at regular lunch time, so we’d stock up with healthy snacks at a grocery store, stash them under the table in the booth, and nibble our way through the days.

  • 1994
    Friday, 4/29: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Friday, 5/6: United FNL-DEN-IAD.
    Monday, 5/9: United return.
    Flew to Maryland out of the local small airport, which had a connector flight to Denver for a few years; there was no extra cost on our tickets, but usually much extra turbulence on the short flights along the foothills; sometimes the connector flights were canceled.
    Tuesday, 5/10: Spin-Off blueline.
  • 1995 My daughter went along to Maryland one of these years; neither of us can remember exactly which year, but it was between 1994 and 1997.
    Friday, 4/28: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Friday, 5/5: Continental 1817 & 225 DEN to either IAD or BWI, via somewhere else, 10:10a-?p.
    Monday, 5/8: Continental 220 & 1804, 8:45a-3:09p.
    Tuesday, 5/9: Spin-Off blueline.
  • 1996
    Friday, 4/26: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Friday, 5/3: American 424 DEN to IAD or BWI, 8:49a-6:30p.
    Monday, 5/6: American 1677 & 419, IAD or BWI to DEN via DFW, 7:53a-11:53a.
    Tuesday, 5/7: Spin-Off blueline.
  • 1997
    Wednesday, 4/30: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Friday, 5/2: 7:15a pick up Sharon. United 296 DEN-IAD, 10:40a-3:47p.
    We almost never did anything but go to the festival, work, and come home (note pattern of to-press and blueline dates tucked around the festival; this wasn’t easy, because every magazine’s schedule affects every other magazine’s schedule, and we were dodging around multiple publications to make this happen). Sometimes there was a contradance at Glen Echo Park on Sunday evening, after we got the booth packed up, and we’d stop and check it out. In 1997, however, Sharon and I stayed an extra day and took public transportation into D.C. and went
    to The Textile Museum to see two exhibits, one of very fine knitting and one about netted structures. They were fantastic.
    Tuesday, 5/6:
    United 1821 IAD-DEN, 8:55a-10:35a.
    Wednesday, 5/7: Spin-Off blueline.

A pivotal year: 1998

Trudy and Jan Van Stralen of Louet
offered to stop on their way from Canada and bring my daughter to Maryland
for the weekend from the school she attended for two years in New York.
The scheduling didn’t work out, but it would have been great fun all

The big deal that did happen, though: 1998 was the year that Don Bixby, the director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and I sat on the grass outside building V and had a conversation that led to the Save the Sheep Project.

Judy also came along to Maryland. (She was getting interested in spinning. The spacious room you see in the photos on that last link was made available to us for the final judging of the Save the Sheep entries because of Judy’s efforts. But none of us could foresee that, of course.)

  • 1998
    Wednesday, 4/29: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Friday, 5/1: 6a pick up Judy. United 276 DEN-IAD or BWI, 8:32a-1:33p. We didn’t have to get to the airport two hours ahead in those days, or I would have had to pick up Judy before 5a.
    Monday, 5/4:
    United 1227 IAD or BWI-DEN, noon-1:38p.
    Tuesday, 5/5: Spin-Off blueline.

Here’s what a few of my DayTimer notes look like from my meeting with Don:



I’d been interested in sheep, especially rare-breed sheep, for years. I’d first become aware of the rare-breeds issue when I edited Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot for the Handweavers Guild of America and published an article on the Navajo Sheep Project.

My fascination had continued to grow, and a few years before my conversation with Don at Maryland, I’d had a jolt when I looked over the list of endangered sheep breeds and realized how many of the names on the list corresponded to classic handspinning fibers that I’d hate to do without. Lincoln is a rare breed? Yikes! Leicester Longwool, that glorious, shiny, exquisite stuff? Jacob? Shetland, with its incomparable colors and textures??? Cotswolds? Oh, my.

And I hadn’t even encountered yet some of the almost magical island breeds, remarkable for their tenacity as well as their wool quality.

Over the next two years, in addition to my regular work, the Save the Sheep project came into being. I’d initially thought that I’d simply gather existing research to provide the background for the project. As it turned out, nobody’d looked at sheep from this perspective before. Oops. I spent my evenings and weekends putting together the resources we needed to form the project’s foundation.

One last official trip to Maryland, and one on my own

In 1999, the budget was a little tight and there was some talk about canceling the trip to Maryland. Those of us who had been attending said we would cut expenses as far as we could, but we thought it was important to be there. We stayed at a different motel (an inexpensive one that usually is booked up a year in advance . . . we lucked out); I slept on a rollaway. My daughter graduated from high school the next month.

  • 1999
    Wednesday, 4/28: Summer Spin-Off to press.
    Thursday, 4/29: United 1618 DEN-IAD or BWI,
    Monday, 5/3:
    United 1641 IAD or BWI-DEN, 3:10p-4:52p.
    Tuesday, 5/4: Spin-Off blueline scheduled; actually arrived Wednesday, 5/5.

My last day as an Interweave employee was Wednesday, 5/31/2000, a few
weeks after that year’s Maryland festival. Amy Clarke (now Moore) had stepped up
from assistant editor to editor and the Summer 2000 issue of Spin-Off
was her first.

I spent my last weeks on staff finishing off the
book that went along with the Save the Sheep project, which had come into being because of that conversation Don Bixby
and I had sitting on the grass outside building V at the festival in 1998. So in 2000, I went to
Maryland as "just me," not as a representative of Interweave. I shared a motel room with friends I’d met through the years at Maryland.

  • 2000
    Friday, 5/5: United 250 DEN-IAD or BWI,
    Monday, 5/8:
    United 1507 IAD or BWI-DEN, 5:15p-6:53p.
    Thursday, 5/11: daughter home from college (freshman year).
    Friday, 5/12: Handspun Treasures from Rare Wools to press.
  • 2001 Maryland festival dates marked in calendar but X’d out; unable to attend.
  • 2002 Maryland festival dates marked in calendar but lined through; unable to attend.
  • 2003 Maryland festival dates not marked in calendar.

Maryland: reminders

On one of the Maryland weekends, I bought a cherry lap spindle from Noel Thurner at Norsk Fjord Fibers. And another year the weekend-spinning fiber I bought was a mix of blues, greens, and purples with some flash in it.

I spun all of the yarn for this vest (except the trim around the edges) while talking to people at the festival. I started the spinning after I got to the festival and I finished it before I got on the plane back to Denver. That’s the spindle that I bought from Noel, which I used to make this yarn (and a lot of other yarn at other times):


. . . along with the book that wouldn’t have happened without Maryland. The yarn is two-ply, sportweight (6 stitches to the inch in stockinette).

This vest reminds me: I’ve been talking about the cabled sweater I’m knitting, and have mentioned the way that I like the ribbings to flow into the patterns above them. Here, from the back of the vest, is an example of that idea in action:


The vest appeared in an early issue of Interweave Knits as part of a staff-knitted collection of vests, but when the pattern appeared it called for a regular 2/2 ribbing. For written-out patterns, that’s the easiest solution because describing in line-by-line instructions what I actually did was a bit complicated. For charted patterns, you can easily put in (and knit) what’s really there!

From 1998 to 2008

The rare breeds are still endangered, although some are in much better shape than they used to be (and some are just as vulnerable as they were).

And that’s the connection to 2008. I’m still here, doing many of the same things to raise spinners’ and knitters’ awareness of where our materials come from (and that the best of them will disappear if we don’t take at least some action), although under very different circumstances. I hadn’t realized how much the Save the Sheep Project marked the close of my time with Interweave, nor the symmetry between that time and some of the major endeavors I’ve got underway for the next couple of years. I still want very much to do everything I can to keep the materials and the skills to use them
alive and available, as part of our everyday lives as well as our human
heritage. They can enhance our contemporary lives wonderfully, both in the doing and when we use the items that we make.

If we humans lose the skills of making things from scratch (like growing food, building canoes, spinning yarn for fabrics)—and we will lose the skills if the materials are not available to us—we will have lost something that is thousands of years old and of inestimable value, not just historically but spiritually. And that doesn’t even get into the individual characters of the creatures and what they can teach us. . . .

A few days ago I got a lovely packet of Soay ram’s wool that I’m looking forward to spinning, and—thanks to Donna Druchunas—twice last week I met with June Hall, who’s been working on sheep conservation in the British Isles and Lithuania. June has written and published a delightful little book about Herdwick sheep called Henrietta Herdwick that is illustrated with charming felted images, and she keeps Soays herself (although my Soay packet came from a U.S. flock).

I’m unaccustomed to meeting other people who are interested in rare-breed sheep. It was quite astonishing to meet June, and I hope I can get to Woolfest some time!

Spring in Maryland and spring in Colorado

Usually when we have gone to the Maryland festival, we’ve been able to catch what is for us an early spring, with the dogwoods blooming. Here in Colorado, the crabapple blossoms began to open yesterday, and this morning we had both bright blooms and a light snowstorm:


  • 2008
    Thursday, 5/1: 8:15a pick up Sharon. . . .

8 thoughts on “Going “home” to Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival”

  1. (Sigh …) What a wonderful remembrance – thanks so much! And I have a much-loved spindle just like yours from Noel. It’s an excellent spinner.

  2. I’d have linked to Noel, except that she is no longer selling those spindles. Paradise Fibers does have them; I am so fond of it that I got a “spare” this year.

    The crowds at Maryland look very different from inside a demo booth than they do out in the “public” view! I’m most concerned about that, and also about not being able to use vendor parking {grin}, by which I got very spoiled, even though I like to walk.

    Joanne, I didn’t know your name to recognize it at the time, but I remember the sweater! I’m sorry it didn’t look good on you. It did look good in the judging room . . . the competition for that show was *astonishing*, and the choices were very hard to make. And you get many extra brownie points for even finding Portland to use.

    In a way, that show was a kind of scavenger hunt for the entrants, although I hadn’t thought of it that way until just now. Those who came up with the rarest breeds should have gotten certificates {grin}.

    Yes, we should talk.

    By the way, some time check out what you call the “also ran” index at the back. Those are no “also ran” people–! I’d name names, but it wouldn’t be fair . . . I’d miss too many. What a wonderful portrait of the spinning community at that time . . . and, to a large extent, folks who are still contributing wonderfully.

  3. Linda Berry Walker tells me the seminar at Hampshire College was in 1983. We haven’t been in touch in years, but I found her web site and dropped her an e-mail to tell her I was talking about her, and heard back. Wonderful! Both of our children are the same age, as it turns out. I remembered she had a young one, as I did, but not specifics.

  4. I hope to run into you next Saturday! I will be running in and out as my daughter has swim class right smack in the center of the day and I don’t want her to miss it. Daphne will not attend…

  5. Hmmm. Post on how to run a lap spindle. I don’t even think about how to do it, I just do it. However, the bigger trick is figuring out how to take photos of myself doing it! Or finding a willing (and local) person who’d be willing to snap me.

    I use mine either standing up or sitting down. Priscilla Gibson-Roberts’ Spinning in the Old Way shows both sitting and standing techniques, although yes, photos would also be nice.

    I do like a spindle with a nice, long shaft for this.

  6. Our paths may intersect briefly yet again. We hope to attend Md S&W if the rain is not too bad. I was in the ‘also ran’ group of the rare breed knitting. We attended SOAR several years in the late ’90’s.

  7. It’s great to see how the Save the Sheep project started and hear the history of Spin-Off at MDS&W.
    See you there this weekend, I hope. Stop by the booth . . .

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