Maryland Fiber Feeding Frenzy

Typically, the first Saturday in May is spent at the New Jersey State History Fair, presenting the handspinning demonstration. However, New Jersey’s finances are in such disarray they had to cut back on things like their own history. So, no funding, no fair.

However, this meant we suddenly had the day free to plan something else. Since we had never managed to have the day off to visit the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, this seemed the obvious solution.

 I spent a few days trolling the Internet, looking for blogs and other informational sources to find out what other people’s experiences were and planned accordingly. For better or for worse, here are my thoughts on the whole experience for those who may follow.

 1.)   Get there early, preferably before 8:45 AM. This was advised by one past participant and proved to be excellent advice. Not only will you get a parking spot closer to the show gates, you will not sit out on the highway in a line of cars for an hour or more, like some friends I was meeting up with.

Of course, this means getting up early. Like 4:00 AM. The boys were mightly disturbed:

From left to right, that would be Emlyn, Lemur (on my head), and Grey Cat.

We left central New Jersey at about 5:15 AM and arrived out on Route 32 around 8:30.

It took about 15 minutes to go the last half-mile to the parking lot, but at least the car was within walking distance of the gate. This is a good thing if you plan to make multiple purchases that need to be walked back to the car. If you arrive later than 9:15, you will park “up the hill.”

This is still within sight of the main gate, but can be a haul if you expect to walk back to your car with purchases.

2.)   Sun screen is a must!  And a hat with big brim. You will cook out in the open areas if it is a nice day. We also brought extra shoes and socks in case it was wet underfoot, but this was not necessary. We did hear stories about previous years when it was rainy, so plan accordingly.

3.)   Bring a small cooler with some sort of food and drinks, “just in case.” The food areas are mobbed from around 10:00 AM onward. We took yogurt, protein drinks, and fruit, along with a gaggle of water bottles and Gatorade. A tip: the night before, open the water bottles and pour out a small portion. Close the bottle and put it in the freezer. In the morning, put the frozen bottles in a bag with whatever other drinks you are bringing. The frozen bottles will thaw, you will bottles of icy cold water, and they will keep the Gatorade or whatever else you brought cold. Nothing beats a drink of ice cold water after hiking around the dusty show field all day!

4.)   From the food vendors, get the roasted pit lamb and lemonade from the vendor right by the sheep show barn. Hmmm – pit lamb for breakfast! By 9:00 AM, we had already been up and on the road since 5:00, it seemed like the middle of the day. There was absolutely no line at the pit lamb smoker, we saw our opportunity, and we took it. Just past this set-up is a little screen gazebo near a footbridge, so we had a lovely feast in the gazebo. Much refreshed, we were ready to descend on the fiber vendors.

5.)   Be prepared to be overwhelmed. I can’t tell you how many times I read this in other people’s reactions. If you are prepared to be overwhelmed, chances are that you will be able to handle the enormity of the crowds.


6.)   It is virtually impossible to navigate the vendors in the exhibition barns. We did much better with the outside tents, the majority of which are straight up to the right as you come in the main gate. Even though we were on-site early, the exhibition barns fill up quickly and don’t have a lot of space to begin with. It would have been nice to look at some of the books and patterns, but stopping to look at anything was a luxury. Be prepared for the numpties who stand in the middle of the exhibition barns. They will either be on the cell phone, or clustered in a group with friends they have just run into, saying things like, “…and then I heard she was going down to Virginia next week.”  Don’t stand around in the middle of the aisles, people. There are people who want to spend money who can’t get around you.

7.)    Don’t spend a lot of time looking at things you can buy in a local yarn store or online. Focus on what you can’t find anywhere else. This will reduce the number of booths you need to navigate.

8.)   If you plan to buy a raw fleece, visit the sale early before it is crowded with people. Tip: the area will be crowded with about, oh, 5 people in it. The fleece show and sale is allotted a tiny corner of space and was absolutely jammed with bags. Bags with blue tags are show fleeces; bags with yellow tags are for sale only. Trouble is, there are yellow-tagged bags piled high on tables, and shoved in heaps under the tables. There is no leisurely poking through bags here. I was fortunate enough to find a very nice black Finn fleece and a lovely Lincoln/Merino cross that happened to be right out on top, calling to me. Getting them to the register was an adventure; John swears several fleeces reached out from under the table and tried to pull him down. The volunteers at the fleece sale are absolutely the best, the nicest, the calmest people who kept smiling throughout. They are extremely organized and really have their act together. The show organizers really need to give them more space.

9.)   Bring some sort of bag that expands to hold your purchases. I have a cotton mesh string bag I knitted that is really just zillions of yarn-overs on a circular needle. It doesn’t weigh anything and expands like crazy. Filled, it provided protection for my back when getting jostled in the crowds.

10.)                       If you buy something large, either from a vendor or at the equipment auction, tell the cop in the parking lot and they will let you bring your car up closer to the show grounds. I scored a jumbo Strauch ball winder and a Schacht rigid heddle loom on a trestle in the used fiber equipment auction.

If you need a loom, this is the place to look. Big ones, and going for cheap. Just make sure you have a way to get it home!

John dutifully went off to figure out how we would get my purchases to the car and came back smirking. He had been able the move the car to within 50 feet of the auction tent. Clearly, the cops understand that a loom is not something to be trifled with when carrying it.

My worst impressions of the day?  It is too bad that the sheep show seems incidental to the fiber feeding frenzy. It is pretty apparent that people are there to spend money on yarn. The sheep show was going on in the barns like it was in another world. I saw very few shoppers stop off to see any of the judging or walk through the breed barns. This is a terrible shame, because if you are going to work with wool, you really should see it on the hoof.

Not all wool is created equal, nor does it work up the same.

It really helps to learn the different types of wool that exist as this could influence your choice of material for a project.


The other negative was that, while I was looking to buy roving, there was this almost insidious feeling that roving buyers were automatically felters. At about the third vendor I bought roving from, she look a bit furtively and asked, “Are YOU a handspinner?” She seemed relieved when I admitted I was, as if it restored her faith that there were actually a few of us out there.

The positives were that it was a beautiful day, we met up with some fiber friends that we don’t get to see nearly often enough, I did buy some beautiful roving that I did not have to muck up my kitchen by dyeing, I got two very nice fleeces, and one of the fiber friends who lived close by invited everyone afterwards to a home-cooked meal, so a good time was had by all. We arrived home around 9:30 PM, just in time to shower, fall into bed, and get ready for a spinning demonstration on Sunday!

 I will do a separate post on the rovings and fleeces secured at MSWF!

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