Held since 1980, the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is an annual gathering of knitters, farmers, and regular fiber lovers alike. Every third week in October, the festival is hosted at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, New York. On October 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and October 16, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the fairgrounds were filled with memorial tents, food vendors, and natural fiber-producing livestock including sheep, goats, angora rabbits, llamas, musk oxen, and alpacas.
Skylar Fountain is a sophomore early childhood education major at the State University of New York at New Paltz and owner of Three Shetland Sheep entered the festival. According to Fountain, the festival mostly attracts knitters with a variety of wools and textiles. “The sheep are there more for entertainment,” Fountain said. “They’re a loyal bunch of these knitters.”
Vendors come from all over the Hudson Valley for the festival. This year, more than 240 different vendors participated. From soap to woolen to souvenirs, there is something for everyone. “Fashion is always so entertaining because people are going to wear their wool creations, and you see some pretty cool stuff,” Fountain says.
During the boredom of the COVID-19 lockdown, knitting has become very popular, especially among young people. Interest in ethically sourced costumes has also grown, which is not too difficult to find at the festival.
Although the festival attracts a lot of farmers, single families like Fountain attend the festival with their livestock. “It all started for me when I was in the fourth grade, and basically, my first exposure as a Shetland Sheep was at the Dutchess County Fair, which is the same venue as the Sheep/Wool Festival,” Fountain explained. “I think it was just something I was a part of and knew about. Once I started owning and displaying sheep, I thought they were great and just talked about who owns them and found out that sheep don’t live far from me.”
Three of her Shetland sheep participated in the festival, chili, sesame and pickles. “All my sheep have food-themed names,” Fountain said. “So there’s the avocado and the olive. It’s practically a fruit bowl.”
Some of the other breeds that participated were Herdwicks, Merinos, Columbias, Lincolns, Rambouillet, Blue-Face Leicester, Romneys, and Corridales. There were also “natural-colored sheep” which were mixed breeds and usually non-white sheep.
The award categories are divided into three white and three color categories, with first, second and third place in each category. According to Fleece Show Winners 2022, there are soft white, medium white and long white, with natural colored opposites. There is also a primitive breed category, which means that these sheep “did not improve” with the introduction of other breeds.
The top heroine on the Fleece Show is Martha Polkey, a patron and advocate for the conservation of farmland, landscape and wildlife habitat. She owns Black Sheep Farm in Virginia and regularly displays sheep and wool at the Maryland and New York Sheep and Wool Festivals.
The Sheep and Wool Festival is an autumnal tradition for many families in the Hudson Valley. “It’s a good time if you want a nice fall experience with lots of different crafts,” Fountain said.
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