Held since 1980, the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is an annual gathering for knitters, farmers and regular fiber-enthusiasts alike. Each third week in October, the festival is hosted at the Dutchess County Fair Grounds in Rhinebeck, New York. On Oct. 15, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Oct. 16, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the fairgrounds were packed with souvenir tents, food vendors and natural-fiber-producing livestock including sheep, goats, angora rabbits, llamas, musk oxen and alpacas.
Skyler Fountain is a second-year early childhood education major at SUNY New Paltz and the owner of three Shetland sheep that entered the festival. According to Fountain, the festival attracts mostly knitters with its wide variety of wool and textiles. “The sheep are more there to be entertaining,” said Fountain. “They’re a dedicated bunch those knitters.”
Vendors come from all over the Hudson Valley for the festival. This year over 240 different vendors participated. From soaps to wool to souvenirs, there’s something for everybody. “The fashion is always pretty entertaining because people will wear their fabric wool creations, and you see some pretty impressive things,” Fountain says.
During the boredom of the COVID-19 lockdown, knitting became very popular, especially among young people. An interest in ethically sourced fashion also grew, something that’s not too hard to find at the festival.
Although the festival attracts a lot of farmers, individual families like Fountain’s attend the festival with their livestock. “It started for me when I was in fourth grade, and basically, one of my first exposure to like Shetland Sheep was at the Dutchess County Fair, the same place where the Sheep/Wool festival was held,” Fountain explained. “I think it’s just been something I’ve been a part of and knew about. Once I started owning and showing sheep I just thought they were adorable and just got to talking about who owns them and figured out that sheep lived not too far from me.”
Three of her Shetland sheep, Chili, Sesame and Pickles participated in the festival. “All of my sheep have like food-themed names,” said Fountain. “So there’s an Avocado and an Olive. It’s practically a fruit bowl.”
Some other breeds that participated were Herdwicks, Merinos, Columbias, Lincolns, Rambouillet, Blue-faced Leicester, Romneys and Corridales. There were also “natural-colored sheep,” which are mixed breeds and usually non-white sheep.
The prize categories are separated into three whites and three coloreds, with first, second and third places in each. According to the Fleece Show Winners 2022, there are White Fine, White Medium and White Long, with Natural Colored opposites. There is also a Primitive Breed category, which means that these sheep have been “unimproved” by introducing other breeds.
The Supreme Champion of the Fleece Show is Martha Polkey, a shepherd and advocate for the conservation of farmland, natural landscapes and wildlife habitats. She owns Black Sheep Farm in Virginia and regularly shows sheep and fleeces at the Maryland and New York Sheep and Wool Festivals.
The sheep and wool festival is a fall 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.