Picture a woman hugging a carefully woven woolen blanket to her chest with equal parts enthusiasm and appreciation asking the question, “What sheep did this come from?” This is the narrative cultivated at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. It’s an origin story whereby the sheep isn’t just another link in the supply chain but assumes a leading role as “business partner.”
The two-day festival, which occurred this past weekend in Rhinebeck, N.Y., dotted the Dutchess County Fairgrounds with more than 30,000 attendees partaking in activities such as fiber art workshops and livestock displays along with tactile interactions with vendors’ soft goods displayed in colorful arrays.
Similar in niche to September’s New York Denim Days, the Sheep and Wool Festival is a community-centric festival, which attracts wool enthusiasts nationwide and even rivals the scale of the National Retail Federation’s Big Show.
“We are a local group that promotes and educates on sheep in the region,” said Blaine Burnett, head of media relations for the festival. And education included everything from selling sheep, purchasing yarns and raw wool, enrolling in workshops on spinning and dyeing, as well as more leisurely insights such as lamb tasting and shopping for finished products.
But with respect to the shepherds, the “best in show” was the growing taste for localism and stories of origin heralded by consumers and vendors alike.
Across this global community of knitters, spinners and shepherds — “people are now starting to pay attention to local fiber,” said Susie Wilson, owner of SuDan farm and speaker at a festival workshop, “Shepherds Talk Fiber.” Based just outside of Portland, Ore., Wilson said the appeal of localism drives tourists to the namesake farmer’s market in Portland.
Mary Underwood, weaver at Front Porch Textiles who operated a vendor booth, reinforced this localism trend noting that when she makes her own yarns, “a lot of my product from home is [using] Michigan wools.” Of a similar thread to the April fashion week campaign #whomademyclothes launched by “pro-fashion protest” group, Fashion Revolution, the overall attitude of the festival revealed a desire for material and product transparency.
End consumers witnessed this first-hand while pawing through artisan goods, which included knitted hats, sweaters, shawls, vests and scarves, among other items — all handmade and often including handwritten notes detailing the farm or sheep that supplied the fiber.
Regarding attendees, the event spanned generations. On the younger side of the knitting community was Kady Evanyshyn and Ruth Hollander, self-proclaimed “process” and “product” knitters, both aged 23. Both agreed Rhinebeck boasts a substantial market for locally sourced yarns and the like, despite the dominance of merino wool from Australia and New Zealand.
“There’s more of a culture to respect where your things come from,” explained Evanyshyn. Similarly, Hollander noticed a demand for sourcing U.S.-based sheep and for spending at specific businesses who match the ideals of “woman-owned” and local “small businesses.”