Friday, November 21, 2014

2014 Fiber Adventures Recap: Sheep to Shawl!

This year, I joined a Sheep-to-Shawl team. Technically we started the team last fall, but I wasn't able to go to our first competition since it fell on the same weekend as the Crafty Bastards craft fair. So, my first ever sheep-to-shawl was at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival this past may.

My team with a llama, a donkey, and an emu. You know, a normal saturday.

What's a Sheep-to-Shawl? Well, they vary a bit, but basically it's a timed competition. Each team has several spinners and a weaver, and you show up with a warped loom and a sheep. The clock starts when your shearer starts to shear the sheep, and you take the raw, right off the sheep fleece and turn it into a (usually about 6ft long) shawl in the span of about 3 hours. It's usually a bit of a race because you often get extra points for finishing first, second, third etc. Then the judges take the shawls away and score them on a huge list of different points, and everyone reconvenes for the judging announcement. Sometimes the shawls are auctioned off at the end. There are also Fleece-to-Shawl competitions, where you show up with a fleece (and you're usually allowed to wash it beforehand!) instead of a sheep.

Honestly, it's not something I ever thought I'd be doing. I hadn't even watched a sheep-to-shawl before my first competition, I caught the end of the shawl auction once at MD Sheep & Wool but otherwise I was pretty clueless. But somehow I ended up competing at both Maryland Sheep & Wool AND Rhinebeck this year, the two biggest fiber festivals on the east coast!

I'm in it 100% for my team and for my own enjoyment. I love my team, we work really well together and we have tons of fun in the process. I've also learned a lot, not an easy feat when you've been spinning for about 10 years. I mostly have a "been there, done that" attitude with most things fibery, and since I have enough experience to know what I like and dislike in term of fiber, I'm a bit set in my ways. So it's been very enjoyable to stretch myself and try new things. I might even be leaning towards picking up weaving...which is also something I did not expect to find myself doing.

So, MD Sheep & Wool. Our teams sole experience to this point was the fleece to scarf (the finished product was smaller than a shawl) competition at the Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival in VA last fall, which I didn't attend, and so my personal sheep-to-shawl experience was pretty close to zero. My only contribution was dyeing the yarn for the warp. Our team was the only team to sign up for the competition, although we didn't know that beforehand. They completed their scarf in the time limit, and won.

About a month before MD Sheep & Wool, we all got together and sort of spontaneously made the decision to enter the sheep to shawl. I was both excited and nervous about it, since there are actually 'professional' sheep to shawl teams out there and MDSW seemed like the big leagues. We signed up our team, and then we realized everything that had to get done in the scant few weeks before the big day. We need a sheep, first of all. Where do you get a sheep? Do you just call up a random farmer and ask to borrow one? I know some local sheep farmers since I buy a lot of fleeces, but I wasn't sure those relationships were strong enough for me to ask out of the blue for permission take a sheep off their property. I didn't want just any sheep, since the texture, color, etc of the fleece would have a huge impact on the feel and look of our finished shawl. Then, we needed to practice. A lot. How thick would we need to spin the wool? How should we process it? Can we all match our spinning to produce consistant yarn? Can we actually even manage to make a huge shawl in 3 hours? We also needed to come up with team costumes and a display. Oh, and find someone to shear the sheep for us.

Emily shearing one of Skip's Harlequin ewes

We got so very lucky. I was planning on going to the spring shearing at Pleasant Living Farm, my local harlequin sheep farm. Not only did Skip (the farmer) graciously allow us to borrow a sheep, we got to pick out the fleece we wanted on the hoof. And Emily Chamelin, the shearer, offered to pick up our sheep, drive him to the fair the morning of the competition, AND keep him with her other sheep during the day and bring him back home in the evening. She also advised us that it was most likely unwise for us to try and have our friend Catherine, who was planning on attending the two day MD Shearing School only weeks before the festival, shear for us. She told us that most people do not leave the shearing school as functional shearers, and "what will you do if the sheep gets up and runs off?". Oh. Right. Unfortunately, Emily was already taken as a shearer for another team at the competition (she is well known and very good at what she does, every farm I buy fleeces from talks about 'their shearer Emily'), but she found us another local shearer who could shear for us. Whew.

Our chosen sheep. He thought he got off easy not getting sheared like his buddies that day. Little did he know!

The sheep we picked out was a young Harlequin ram. His fleece, like most Harlequins, was spotted and had shades of white, cream, gray, and brown. We wanted to highlight the multiple colors in the fleece, so we decided to try to do a gradient across the length of the shawl, slowly transitioning from white to brown. We bought the fleece of one of our sheep's ram buddies to use for practice.

Our first practice went okay, at best. It took us hours past the time limit to finish the shawl, and we had not really planned out the gradient beforehand so the transitions weren't even. We did, however, figure a lot of things out - how we wanted to spin the wool, and how we needed to plan out the colors so the gradient was even. By the end of our second practice, I was feeling really optimistic about our chances - I was pretty sure that we would be able to finish an entire shawl at the competition, barring any random equipment failures. And even then, we would probably be fine thanks to our team captain's planning skills...she made sure that we had an extra spinning wheel at the competition just in case. And all the tools we might possibly need. We had beautiful warp yarn for the competition, mixed handspun wool in shades of greens, blues, teals, and neutrals. We wanted to do something a bit different, and to capture the spirit of our team in yarn, so we decided to weave a bit of extreme tailspun art yarn on either end of the shawl right about the fringe. I have a lot of experience with tailspinning, so prepping the locks and tailspinning the end yarn was my job. I tailspin by separating each individual lock from the fleece, fluffing the end open, and spinning it horizontally onto a core thread so that every single lock sticks out from the strand of yarn. It's very thick and very striking. But it meant that I had to start spinning right away while the rest of the team was working on prepping the fleece, making a core thread and then spinning the locks onto it so that our weaver could get started as soon as possible.

Tailspun detail on the final shawl

We named our borrowed sheep "Harley", and our team/costume theme was "Harley's Angels", so we dressed in 70s ish clothes, with big sunglasses, big hair (or as close as I was gonna get to big hair) and sparkly angel wings. I don't think any of us were very enthused about the costumes, but it is one of the points we get judged on.

Right before the competition, checking out our fleece still on the sheep

I felt a bit outclassed when I first got there, we had a small posterboard and a practice shawl or two for our display, but the other teams had really professional looking and much more elaborate displays. And there was a surprisingly large crowd gathered to watch the start of the competition for 8 am on a saturday. The fair didn't even officially open until 9.

Ready and waiting. Harley is just not sure about all of this.

The competition is a bit of a blur for me. It was amazing. It starts with all the teams gathered around their shearers with their sheep, and then a fair official yells "GO!", the timer starts, and the shearers jump into action. Our shearer finished second (behind Emily, of course) and so we had a good several minute head start on most of the other teams.

A judge has to look over the sheep and the fleece before we're allowed to take it.

I just remember smiling and laughing and spinning a fleece that was cleaner and softer and easier to work with than we had hoped for.

Picking out the locks for my tailspun yarn

We kept our weaver steadily supplied, and we had planned the gradient well so we were able to spin the exact amount for each color transition with ease. Our team captain Lauren didn't compete (we only needed 3 spinner and 1 weaver for the competition, and we had 6 people in our group) and took care of talking to the crowd of people watching us work, so even though I was right next to a wall of onlookers, I barely noticed them I was so focused on our little bubble of shawl creation.

Sorting the colors for the gradient

Eventually, we finished spinning all the yarn we needed and tried (and failed) not to hover around our weaver Jolene as she worked. The weaver definitely has the hardest job, and at the end when tension is high and you're rushing to finish, the weaver is the last and only person on the team still working away. We heard cheers go up as another team pulled their shawl off the loom, and then - Jolene was done! We pulled the shawl off the loom and all rushed to tie the fringe and neatly and evenly cut the ends.

One last check for loose ends, and we dashed off to wash the shawl. Two hot water washes and a rinse later, and the shawl was ready to be handed over to the judges. We did it! And we were the second team to finish.

We celebrated with mimosas (thanks, Lauren!) and a picnic lunch while we waited for the judging.

I managed to dash off to the fleece sale and pick out a fleece before rushing back for the big announcement. A huge crowd had formed, waiting for the judges decision and the shawl auction right afterwards.

The shawls were displayed on a table in front of the stage, so for the first time we got to see all the other teams shawls. There were some really beautiful shawls there.

Then the judging started. They announce the placings starting with the last place team. There were 6 teams total including us. We weren't last place! Whew. But then the judges kept calling team names, and ours still hadn't been called. They announced the second place team. They still hadn't called our name. My team members, including me, had looks of deep confusion verging on panic. Did they forget about us? There's no way we could have placed that high! But then they announced first place. We won. We won the sheep to shawl at Maryland Sheep & Wool.

I still kind of can't believe it. I loved our shawl and was really proud of the gradient, but somehow placing high was still unexpected!

We visited Harley and told him what a good sheep he was. We told Emily the good news and immediately asked for her to be our shearer next year.

We decided to use some of the money from the competition and auctioning our shawl to go to Rhinebeck, the NY Sheep & Wool festival, this fall. We didn't need a sheep for that competition since it was a fleece to shawl, so that made it much easier to plan for, and we needed 5 people for our team so our team captain would be able to compete with us this time. We had a lot more restrictions for this competition, since they had a bunch of bonus points given for using a particular breed of sheep (shetland) and for including natural dyeing. We bought a natural brown shetland fleece from Ewe-reka Farm in Monkton, MD and I dyed some of the fiber for our warp yarn with natural dyes. I chose orange, peach, and yellow tones since I didn't have a lot of time to mess with natural dyeing and I knew I could get those shades pretty reliably. I used onion skins, annatto seed, and madder root. Our warp yarn was all handspun again, this time all shetland wool.

Our Rhinebeck team display, with natural dyes and samples of our warp yarns.
Some of the handspun shetland warp yarns
We wanted to use another art yarn element in this shawl, and our weaver came up with the idea of having a coiled yarn as a supplemental warp. It wouldn't go through the heddles on the loom with the rest of the warp, but it would float on top of the shawl and she would weave it in by hand as she went. We coiled the yarn into altoid tins to keep it all together and make it easier for her to work with.

I loved Rhinebeck. The food!! Oh, the food. And the fairgrounds were beautiful, with all the brightly colored fall leaves on the trees. Perfect weather for wearing handknits.

Our theme for this competition was "What a tangled web we weave", so we kind of had a halloween theme. We all wore black and had spider headbands on. There were 5 teams total including us, and some of them were pretty impressive. There was a Doctor Who themed team who wove a shawl with a TARDIS design that they designed themselves! And it was all naturally dyed too. Another team had a beautiful warp dyed with cochineal.

Again, the competition itself is kind of a blur. We were in a roped off area, but almost completely surrounded by onlookers since we were on the end of the row of teams. I ended up talking to people a lot more, since I could overhear their questions and explain what I was doing to interested people. We were very surprised when the farmers from Ewe-reka Farm, who we had bought our competition fleece from, showed up! It turns out they had been thinking about travelling to Rhinebeck but didn't make plans until we told them we'd be using their fleece at the sheep to shawl. And they stayed for the entire 3+ hours.

We were the first team to finish our shawl this time, and since our weaver decided to hemstitch the ends, we didn't have to tie the fringe, just cut the ends even. No washing the shawl this time, so off to the judges it went. After a long wait, it was time for the judging.

We placed second! I'm so proud of us for placing that high. It was definitely a lot harder to compete at an out-of-town competition, and there were some differences between Rhinebeck and MD Sheep & Wool so now that we're familiar with it we can plan better next year.

Sheep-to-shawls are a lot of work, since there are weeks and weeks of prep beforehand, but it's worth it. I'm pleasantly surprised at how many teams showed up, too. I'm really looking foward to continuing to compete and try new techniques with my team. Who knows....maybe I'll learn to shear. Or weave.

Me with our Rhinebeck shawl, picture taken right as I was laughing. I think this perfectly captures the feeling of finishing a sheep-to-shawl! 

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