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Spinning away time at a Vermont 'sheep-to-shawl' festival

With an era of wastefulness coming to an abrupt end in this country, New England's past can offer some rewarding lessons for its future. A hundred years ago frugal Yankees depended on wool as a renewable resource and sheep were a ubiquitous part of the landscape. Now, wool is making a big comeback as part of the handcrafts renaissance, and it appears that sheep raising is on the verge of a revival in many areas of the country, particularly in New England.

"Maybe we're coming full circle," i thought, as Aliza (my daughter) and I drove from Boston to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom last spring for a wool festival and sheep-to-shawl competition. Aliza weaves and I take pictures; good reasons for both of us to be going up there. The day was straight out of a technicolor movie with blue sky and puffy white clouds; Willoughby Cap, a prominent geological fault gouged out of a ridgeline, dominated the horizon; the sun shone on swathes of dandelions ablaze in Crayola green fields; and crowing bemis Ridge in East Burke where the competition was being held were freshly painted yellow barns ready to receive sheep and all manner of hand machinery that would turn fleece into finished shawls.

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We arrived early in the morning. I noted the quiet, purposeful activity going on: a few men setting up temporary sheep pens; someone checking waterlines for thirsty animals. Finally, the contestants began to drive up in trucks filled with sheep, children, and hay, which they unloaded along with spinning wheels, looms, and bags of fleece. Soon spectators arrived, making the atmosphere more festive.

Inside the largest of the yellow barns, the sheep-to-shawl contestants were organizing themselves into pre-arranged groups, getting their materials ready. As start-up time approached I counted seven teams, of four people per team, assembled, ready to go.

At 10 a.m. having been signaled in some mysterious fashion, they began working. By reading the rules sheet and asking a lot of questions I pieced together what was going on. Apparently each team had to card and spin its own fleece; then by any recognizable hand method such as weaving, knitting, crocheting, macrame, tatting, etc., each team had to complete a shawl by the 3: 30 p.m. deadline. Two judges would select winners by using a formula involving time, yardage, quality of workmanship, teamwork, and design. I didn't understand a bit of it, but I assumed that it was comprehensible to the participants. The grand finale, climaxing the day's events was to be a shawl auction.

All day long people streamed in and out of the barn, watching the contestants , looking at the displays bordering the inside of the barn; fleecy hats, mittens , car-seat covers; lovely heathery woven skirts and shirts; rough textured, durable looking knitted hats and socks -- the kind that you knew would last through countless harsh New England winters. Everything I saw invited touching or feeling: The whole day was a tactile celebration. The sunlight, having found openings through the huge barn doors and small, high windows, struck the spinning wheels and mahogany wall panels, making the different woods gleam warmly.

I was intrigued with how relaxing spinning looked, how elegantly simple was the form of a spinning wheel. Not so the loom: Its complicated network of warps and woofs clearly showed that something of an intricate nature would be produced. Indeed, the tugging and pulling at looms were the only jarring motions in the barn. The rest of the activity seemd to be going on in slow motion, belying the fact that a competition was in progress.

Outside, baby lambs mingled with small children, both running around in the dirt road or rolling about in the warm grass. I was amused to see baby bottles with warmed milk held more frequently for baby lambs than for human infants. Sheep breeders stood around in small clutches talking shop. I watched my daughter Aliza, recently smitten with the farming syndrome, trying to buy a lamb , although I wondered how she was going to get it back to Rhode Island in her subcompact car.

I went looking for the sheep shearing, the other publicized event of the day, and was told to look for a man named Bob Burroughs in blue coveralls. I found him -- an impish looking gentleman with fluffy white hair puffing out around the edges of his farm cap -- and the sheep in the cool basement level of the barn. He seemed to be having a problem finding a live outlet for his electric clippers. After several unsuccessful tries he pulled out a pair of steel shears with which he deftly began sepparating fleece from sheep. The sheep was so completely clamed by his touch that it didn't squirm or flinch. Thirty minutes later, a pile of fleece, a denuded sheep, and a smiling Bob Burroughs made a picturesque trio.

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And so it went for the rest of the day: shearing, weaving, and spinning inside the barn; an informal marketplace outside where both sheep and fleece were for sale. I nearly bought a seventeen-pound bag of fine Romney fleece with I could have knitted up into several soft handsome sweaters, until I discovered that if I had someone card and spin the fleece into usable yarn it would cost me an additional $2 an ounce. Thace quickly turned my bargain into an extravagance , which I had no trouble resisting, but I came away with a healthy respect for the art of hand spinning.

After a lunch break for lamb stew, the pace of the competition picked up peceptibly. The teams had all finished carding and spinning; now they started on the actual shawlmaking. Patterns and shapes began to emerge; so did colors. One team of knitters had developed a system whereby four pairs of hands knitted circularly on the same shawl; another team had three people working simultaneously on a loom. There was more concentration and less socializing among team members as speed became important and the deadline drew near. Onlookers became so involved in what was going on, that when the first shawl came off a loom at a little after 3:30 p.m. the crowd broke into whoops and cheers.

At the spirited auction a short time later one shawl went for just under $200 while the rest sold for $30 to $100, a solid indication of the ingenuity and craftsmanship present that day.

As people were packing up to leave, I went looking for Elizabeth Brouha, whose Friends of Burklyn organization had sponsored the competition. I wanted to find out how she'd come up with such a novel idea. I found here amid a congratulatory crowd, somewhat stunned by but delighted with the day's success. She was, however, deflecting all praise from hereself to "Candy whose inspiration and execution it was totally," insisted Elizabeth. She took me over to meet Candace Paton, an attractive, animated brunette from Minnesota and founder of the Northern Vermont SChool of Weaving.

Candace, who introduced herself to me as a wool addict answered my "how, why, when" questions about the sheep-to-shawl contest by telling me that "it was the end result of ideas I've been mulling over for quite some time now. Our annual sheep-shearing event hasn't been drawing very big crowds and we needed some sort of device to attract people. Then I remembered reading about the traditional 'sheep-to-shawl' competitions in Australia." Coincidentally, some of her colleagues told her they'd heard about spinning and weaving competitions in southern New England, but when she attended one in New Hampshire she found that it had beem limited to weavers and that the competition consisted of seeing who could weave a given length of cloth in the shortest amount of time.

"That's too restrictive for me," said Candace in a somewhat disapproving tone."I like as much creativity and diversity as possible, so I went with the Australian concept of making an entire garment (in this case a shawl) from start to finish using any hand method that I could consider legitimate. However," she continued, "we had to forego shearing as our starting point because that would have meant bedding sheep overnight in a barn for an early morning start and we just aren't set up for that."

"The market for wool and sheep products is out there," said Candace, "but we each have to find our own way of satisfying it and ourselves. For young people starting out with small land holdings and even smaller bank accounts, sheep make a perfect investment with a substantial return to look forward to. Wouldn't it be great to have your own small flock of sheep out there on the hillside, hand-woven wool blankets on all the beds, hand-knitted sweaters for the whole family and artistic wall hangings made from your own wool?" asked Candace.

"Why not," I wondered? For Candace Paton, Elizabeth Brouha and the 998 other people at the Wool Festival that day sheep were definitely a part of the future.

This year's Festival takes place, May 24, at West Burke, Vermont.

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