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Friday, Apr 27, 2018
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Travel and Beaches

Knitters hoof it to Maryland for annual Sheep and Wool Festival

It is a little-known fact that when visiting a sheep and wool festival, it is nearly impossible not to think of a pig. That’s what I discovered recently as I wandered the midway at the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival. Maybe it was because we had just taken the kids to see “Babe” at the Tampa Theatre, but as I sauntered toward the sheep dog trials, I expected to see a certain lanky farmer of few words standing in the ring with a certain little pig at his side. Alas, Farmer Hoggett was nowhere to be seen in West Friendship, Md.
But like Hoggett, the farmers who were there managed their dogs without raising their voices. The dogs — the spitting image of the Great Bahou — pranced around the ring or stalked their prey with their heads down and an intense gaze. I could almost hear the sheep denouncing them with cries of “Wo-o-o-o-lf!” So how, you ask, did I end up watching sheep dog trials at a wool festival in West Friendship? Thereby hangs a tale. My wife is a knitter, you see — a real yarnoholic. An entire room of our house has been given over to the stuff. Downstairs, balls of yarn trail half-done hats and unfinished fingerless gloves from the couch to the kitchen counters. Jen is firmly affixed to Ravelry, a social-media site for knitters. She has become a regular face at the post office, too, sending and receiving knitted gifts to and from all points of the globe. Northwest Canada, Isle of Man, New Zealand: Knitter Nation knows no bounds. Last fall, it looked as if we’d be skipping Thanksgiving with the grandparents for a long weekend in Upstate New York — Rhinebeck, to be precise, home of the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival. On Ravelry, the festival is known simply as “Rhinebeck,” a word spoken with the reverence some people reserve for Lourdes. Or even Madonna, for that matter. But fate intervened, and Rhinebeck happened without us. Cue the planning for West Friendship. It would mean taking the kids out of school for four days. It would mean driving 20 hours with those same kids arguing in the back seat. It would mean surviving the mind-numbing emptiness of I-75 through southwest Georgia. Bring it on. And so it was that we pulled up alongside the Howard County Fairgrounds around midday one Saturday. The festival’s tents gleamed white in the sun. Smoke rose from the grills promising meat on sticks. It was all tantalizingly close. And then the traffic ground to a halt at the top of the off-ramp from I-70. For the next 30 minutes, we crept down the ramp, around the corner and up the two-lane road toward the fairgrounds. In the rear-view mirror, I watched the traffic behind us back up onto the interstate. Knitter Nation had arrived. Let me pause a moment to note that this festival revealed to me a world I had never imagined, a world where millions of people gather to admire something that makes me think of scratchy long underwear. While we were at the Maryland festival, I found a flyer for another one in September in Berryville, Va. — an hour from where we were standing. There are sheep and wool festivals in sweater-friendly places such as Michigan and Maine. You can even go to Iceland in January, if you’re that hard-core. This year’s 10th Florida Fiber-in is set for Sept. 20 to 22 in Orlando, just so you know. It’ll probably be the only festival where the sheep leave their wool coats at home. At the festival gates in Maryland, I resolved myself to my fate as kid-watcher and purse-holder. Jen found the half-dozen Ravelry friends she came to meet in person. As we exchanged names, handshakes and hugs, all of us husbands shared the quiet patience of the condemned. But I quickly realized I was wrong about the festival crowd. It wasn’t all middle-aged women with yarn in their veins. The midway had tens of thousands of people milling about. There were young couples pushing strollers, women in head scarves, and even bearded hipsters — the kind who probably have homebrew bubbling in their bathrooms and artisanal cheese ripening in their basements. The festival itself offered a soup-to-nuts view of the wool business. In one barn, sheep breeders displayed woolly rams and ewes for a young judge with a sport coat and a serious look. “Baa, ram, ewe!” my son called from behind me to the curly-horned ram peeking his head over the metal fence. In the main exhibit hall, people fondled fleece fresh from the sheep (“roving,” they call it). They toyed with spinning wheels worthy of Sleeping Beauty and sorted through hanging hanks of hand-dyed yarn from home-based businesses with such names as the Verdant Gryphon. Down the hill, just past the fiddle-and-mandolin jam session, sheep dogs did their thing in the ring. And sizzling on the grill: lamb kebabs. Even the festival announcer appreciated the irony of eating lamb at a festival devoted to worshiping sheep and their byproducts. But, hey, those kebabs were good. And let’s face it: the sheep on display in their pens weren’t bred to be pets. “What this sheep’s name?” my younger son, the animal lover, asked one farmer. She chuckled a bit, apparently at a loss for an answer. “0983,” she said. That was the number on the tag in the sheep’s ear. Best not to get attached, I guess. “What kind of sheep are these?” I asked the farmer’s husband. “Border Leicester,” he said. “Like ‘Babe!’” I blurted. “Maa-a-a-a!” “Mm-hm,” the farmer’s husband said. I could see the thought bubble forming over his head: “City people.”

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