Thursday, May 18, 2017

You Know It's Spring When.....

....the grass has finally grown enough to withstand a flock of sheep who are tired. of. hay.

We'll ease them into grazing season by limiting their intake until their systems adjust.  For the first day we allow less than half an hour but every minute is full of sheepy happiness.

Being let out to pasture - the ultimate spring milestone!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Maryland, Oh Maryland! - Part Two

Sunday started drier and with sun for about an hour which was perfect for sitting on a bench outside the barn, drinking coffee and eating a giant cherry strudel.  Pure bliss.  How happy are you at Maryland?  It rivals Disney World for sheep and fiber people.  Charlene Carlisle of Little Hooves Romneys was already cheerful and would later be even happier when her lovely sheep won high honors in the Romney show.

"Hi Julie!!"

By noon the day had brightened and the grounds were filling up with a lot of the people who hadn't ventured out on colder, wetter Saturday.

I saw this license plate in the parking lot.  I bet the driver's first passion isn't fiber - I bet someone was being a good sport for their significant other that day.

The sheep shows run all day on both days in adjacent rings.  Scheduling conflicts can happen but are handled with aplomb.  When you have two breeds and they are showing in different rings at the same time you wave your friends down out of the stands and everyone pitches in.  Young exhibitors can be kept running all day if they are helping friends as well as showing their own animals and it's a great way for them to get more and more experience with sheep.  This class is White Long Wool rams and I'm not sure if the folks in white coats are from the UK or just wish they were.  ;-)  

It was a big class with several breeds of sheep represented.  It's a good judge who can fairly compare Scottish Blackface to Cotswold to Leicester Longwool but once again the festival committee came up with two excellent people who really knew their stuff.  You can learn so much by listening to them give their reasons each time for placing the classes the way they did.

One of the inspiring events at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is the Youth Conservationist Program.  The Youth Conservationist Program (YCP) is an adult/youth mentoring program that enables young aspiring shepherds to experience the joys and responsibilities of raising and conserving heritage breeds of wool sheep that may not be common in their area of the United States. Breeders who are willing to mentor youth donate a yearling ewe and help the recipient establish their own flock. Recipients are expected to fulfill the requirements of the YCP by promoting/showing their particular breed of sheep, breeding to a registered ram and by producing a woolen item using the fleece from their own animal. Donors award the ewes to their chosen recipients at the YCP Ceremony held annually at the festival. In 2016, 15 registered ewes were awarded to 15 young shepherds. A number of past recipients have also become donors and are reinvested in the same YCP program that helped them succeed.

Some of the breeds awarded were Scottish Blackface, Jacob, Leicester Longwool and Finn.  The recipient of the Finn also was awarded her two tiny lambs!  Quite the scene stealer!

The festival also hosts a large 'breeds display' barn where associations can showcase what their breed is noted for.  It's a great place to do research if you're choosing a sheep breed, weighing the merits of one over another or trying to locate producers of the breed you've decided on.  Most displays are manned by members who can answer questions but if someone has to step away the pens still have representative animals and literature and attractive displays.

This colored Leicester Longwool momma had a pair of twins with her and they were quite the cuties, peeking over the hay feeder as they were.

The Border Leicester folks had a showstopper of a display.  I'm always blown away by the creativity of all types at this event.  Raw wool at the base, roving up to the torso, knitted sweater with a sash of yarn skeins and this eye popping capelet.  I admit I almost didn't see the sheep.

Sunday was also a good day for shopping (cough*again*cough) and admiring what vendors had to offer.  The felting supply booths are always chock full of masterful examples of what one can create.

Bartlett Yarns had a whole section filled with sheep print fabric.

Sunday is a little bit slower than Saturday and by late afternoon a few vendors had a minute to sit and spin or knit.  I regret not asking about the origin of this wheel.

I went back to check the Fleece Sale.

Wow!  So few fleeces left, and yet those that were there were still of useful quality so late buyers were still shopping and buying.  I was happy to see that all seven of mine had sold.

After all the regular sheep shows had concluded - the breed shows and the Fine, Medium and Long classes in both white and colored divisions - the 'champion drives' are held.  This is where the champion ewes and rams of each show are judged against one another for Supreme Champion Ram (and Ewe) of the show.  The two judges work together to decide the final winner.  It must be very hard - is that Jacob ram a more perfect example of his breed or is that Romney closer to the breed's standard?  Does that Border Leicester epitomize what a ram of his breed should be more than the Natural Colored Fine Wool ram does?  They are all champions in their own right so lengthy deliberation isn't unusual.

Rams are judged first.  Here one of the two judges is looking at the fleece of one of the 'short list' animals - several that were pulled from the whole field of champions and the group from which the final winner will be selected.

And then the process is repeated for the champion ewes.

And finally they choose the Supreme Champion Fleece animal.  (On the hoof - this is not part of the fleece show and sale where the wool is already off the sheep.)  In this class you don't have to be a champion.  Each producer is allowed one animal they consider their best fleeced individual and the judges then choose from the group using the same criteria that a fleece judge would consider - breed standards, volume of wool on the animal and desireability.  Sometimes it comes down to which fleece makes your jaw drop when you part it.  At this level they are all nearly perfect.   

And before you know it the crowds are drifting toward the exits and the vendors are starting to pack up their wares although last minute shoppers are never turned away.

Vendors and sheep breeders still have hours of work to tear down and pack up their booths and animal pens and get home or at least as far as tired eyes will take them down the highway to a hotel. What a weekend.

"See you next year!"

Oh, you know it!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Maryland, Oh Maryland!

This past weekend was the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival - an annual event (#44) eagerly anticipated by fiber people from the four corners of the world.  The degree of organization and array of events and displays can't be exaggerated.  It's an amazing event in scope and execution and it seems to be accomplished with big smiles on every volunteer.

For the second year in a row I arrived in a downpour.  And it was c-c-cold!  Wear-your-winter-coat cold, which was disconcerting as Maryland has been a reliable preview of summer, but not this year! The grounds were downright dismal on Friday.

Still, saying "hi" to friends you only see once a year does lift one's spirits and after our fleeces were checked in at the appointed place I spent some time chatting and admiring the sheep.

This pretty Cotswold girl was too comfy to get up but she did stretch her nose as high as she could to be friendly.  It's the thought that counts.

I'm not sure this youngster knew I was there....  Clearly a trim would be happening before hitting the show ring!

The weather stayed cold and wet for Saturday.  You'd think that would reduce the crowd but this was the parking lot before noon when I hiked the hill to leave fiber with Zeilinger's for processing.  Lost in the distance is the line of cars pulling in off the highway.

Of course I was eager to see how the judges liked the fleeces I brought.

<Insert happy dance of your choice at this juncture> 

Yes!  Excellent results!  And a Cotswold winning the Colored Long Wool division is no small potatoes.  I don't know how many entries there were this year, but last year there were 50 fleeces in the Cotswold breed class and 232 in the Colored Long Wool class so even allowing for a drop-off in entries those results are still reason for cheer.  :-D

The fleece sale was packed with eager buyers.  The tables are clearly marked by category and fleeces are grouped for easy shopping.  This picture doesn't show another whole row of fleece-covered tables to the left against the wall.

The fleece show committee also does a great job of educating people about different sheep breeds. This large display includes locks of fleece attached to each breed's listing so one can see and feel the differences.   Of course this is only a small number of sheep breeds that a fiber artist is likely to encounter but it's a great start.

After enjoying the excitement of the fleece show I headed off to the skein and garment building. Seeing the entries is like looking in the biggest and best jewelry store's display case.  Everything makes you go "oooohh".  You don't know where to go first when you walk in.

But then your eyes are drawn to the grand prize winners covered in purple ribbons.

The blue gradient shawl and the beautiful basket of yarn were created by the same person.  And she weaves amazing things.  Wow.  I think she hogged the talent genes a little.  ;-)

And then you just wander, looking and marveling.

Felt items.

Knit items.

Rug hooking.



And this is just the smallest fraction of beautiful creations there.

Another overwhelming venue was the used fiber arts equipment auction.  This is filled with consigned items and all have to pertain to the fiber arts in some way.  No books or magazines are accepted, only equipment.  (A separate auction on Sunday deals with livestock equipment.)  I've never seen the tent packed with so many items, both antique and new/never used.  Amazing.  I didn't stay for any of it but there must have been some awesome buys here!

So much more to see - next time....Part Two - Sunday!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Velveteen Rabbit?

No, it's corduroy sheep!

The boys have already grown enough wool back to really show the pattern the clippers left in the stubble.

At least they don't go dzzt dzzt dzzt when they walk.  ;-)

Friday, May 5, 2017

Showing Fleeces (Caution - Your Eyes May Glaze Over)

A while ago someone asked how we choose a fleece for a show.  The quick answer is 'one that makes your jaw drop when you see it."  That's true, but more goes into choosing and preparing a fleece although the 'wow factor' is part of it.

Fleeces are shown not just to attract buyers and gain notoriety for a farm but also to help the producer gauge what progress they're making toward reaching the ideal for their breed as described in the breed standard.  All recognized breeds (of all species - sheep, horses, fowl, etc.) have written standards that individuals must meet to be eligible to be registered.  This includes ranges of acceptable height, weight and color, and traits or faults that prevent registration. In sheep the fleece characteristics are very important and each breed description includes the ideal crimp, staple length, luster, color, grade, grease content and other parameters for the wool.  Whether card grading or judging classes of like fleeces to determine the ultimate "best one" a judge should still rely on the breed standard to dictate what he/she is looking for.  Fleeces of crossbred animals can be stunning and worthy of being shown.  They are divided into fine, medium, long and coarse classes (for both white and colored/non-white categories) but the judge should still be considering the listed breed mix and determine whether the result is appropriate for the blend as regards length, weight, crimp and grade.  And the ideal fleece will have all the positive traits in overwhelming abundance - identical crimp nose to tail, staple length even everywhere, grade the same from shoulder to britch.

So, what does a fleece judge look for?  First, are there any faults?  Faults include fiber weakness or breaks, second cuts, excessive VM (vegetable matter, aka chaff), cotting/felting/webbing of the locks, bad smells (mildew, urine, mothballs) and bugs (moths, lice, keds) and are big reasons to quickly be eliminated.  Having narrowed the field down, the judge then looks for the positives.  Is the overall weight right for the breed?  Is the staple length appropriate?  Crimp, luster, etc.are all considered and the fleece best meeting the breed ideal is placed on top.

A buyer will judge fleeces based on their own needs rather than the fleece's comparison to an ideal.   Soundness, cleanliness, color, hand, luster and length may all stand in a different order of importance to a fiber artist who is looking for certain things and may not care that the fleece is smaller then the breed standard suggests it should be.  A commercial buyer is going to be very concerned with uniformity of the fiber by grade and purity of color.  Black fibers in white fleeces will be completely unacceptable to them. These are things a producer might consider when choosing fleeces for a show and sale.  Am I hoping to impress the judge or a buyer?

Likewise, the producer has to weigh the best traits of his/her fleeces against each other when deciding which to show.  Is this one's luster more impressive or that one's length?  This one is soooo soft, but it's not very big.  It's like asking a parent to decide which of their kids is better!  ;-)

Once decisions are made the fleece has to be properly prepared for show.  All fleece shows have clear rules, such as those here at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, but basically the producer wants to take away anything that detracts from the fleece while presenting it in an attractive manner.

Step one - get the fleece on the skirting table.

 This is Large Marge.  Although we try to be careful bagging the fleece after shearing it's always somewhat disarrayed and needs to be unfolded, flipped over and arranged with the cut side down and in a cohesive 'sheep shape'.  Here she really fills the table - head is at the top and tail is at the bottom. I then go around the fleece and take off any fiber that's got any kind of problem.  Marge was not covered during summer so the fleece tips are faded from the sun.  But she was covered during hay feeding season so the fleece is totally free from debris and doesn't have a swath of crud down the middle of her back requiring removal.

This fleece is Carmel's.  She's a moorit who is fading as time goes on.  Her fleece has uneven crimp in some places such as the lower foreleg and ribs but it's all pretty.  The darker lock lying on the others is much crimpier and looks shorter but if stretched out is almost the same length.  I suppose a judge could find fault with those areas being left in but it's sound and usable and a handspinner would sort the fleece by texture or color anyway so I left that type in.

Color shouldn't count either for or against a fleece (unless a fleece is stained with something - urine, marking crayon, red clay dirt) but I wanted to show how this fleece is fading.  Here the cut end (closest to the skin/most recently grown) is noticeably lighter than the tips. Next year she will be the color of warm sand.

And as the fleece is folded into the traditional English roll any second cuts that haven't fallen through the slats will come to light and can be picked out.  Even a very good shearer will inevitably leave a few short second cuts.  

Here's Large Marge again, folded and ready to go back in the bag.

Then it's off to the show for judging, both by 'the judge' and also by potential buyers!