Annual Sheep and Woolcraft Fair Connects Visitors with Local History, Animal Husbandry, and Fiber Art
You may sing your children songs about them and count them when you’re falling asleep, but did you know about sheep’s important role in our history and everyday lives? The first viable flock of domesticated sheep arrived in the colonies in 1609, and shortly thereafter a small but strong wool industry was up and running. Landowners built stone walls to corral their flocks (you probably have come across these in your wanderings!) and colonists even cleared the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket so they could be used for sheep storage. The colonies were so successful in their maintenance of flocks and production of wool that the British government eventually banned colonial wool exports to lessen competition with their own wool markets. This act was one of several that incensed colonists and led to the Revolutionary War. Sheep playing a role in our fight for independence? Absolutely!
What makes wool so valuable? It all comes down to the properties of the wool fibers themselves. Each wool fiber is like a tiny coil (picture an old telephone cord) which can easily compress, extend, and flex without breaking. Woolen fabrics, therefore, have a bit of “give” to them and are extremely durable. A scaly outer layer on each wool fiber provides added protection from wear and tear due to friction. These same scales enable wool to be felted. Felt is commonly known as a craft and apparel material, but it is also widely used in cars, musical instruments, baseballs, air fresheners, and more! Wool can easily absorb water vapor, a property called hygroscopy (try that in your next Scrabble game!). This property makes woolen fabrics great for helping regulate body temperature in changing conditions. Interestingly enough, it will also repel liquids in droplet form, making it a smart choice for outdoor layers and children’s mattress pads. In terms of aesthetics, wool takes dyes easily and is resistant to fading. Wool fibers are naturally fire-resistant, too. Let’s hear it for wool! No wonder folks were fighting over it centuries ago.
A fun family project involves gathering different materials and testing their properties to see how they compare. Use wool, jersey cotton, woven cotton, silk, polyester, rayon…anything you can find (that you don’t mind subjecting to tests!). Children can make hypotheses about how they think different materials will respond to each test, and they may want to organize their observations into a simple data table, too. Test ideas include: stretching three inches of material to see how far it can go, twisting samples and observing the rate at which they return to their untwisted states, squeezing droplets of water onto the material to test its water resistance, dyeing materials to see how vivid the resulting colors are, and wrapping jars of ice with different materials to observe their insulating properties.
Whether you’re part of a sheep farming family or your flock is new to the world of sheep and wool, the Massachusetts Sheep and Woolcraft Fair, held at the Cummington Fairgrounds on Memorial Day Weekend, has wonderful experiences in store. The schedule includes children’s workshops in woolcraft basics such as weaving, yarn spinning, felting, and dyeing. Adults and children 15 and older can learn about Angora rabbit care, using a spindle, and intarsia knitting. Demonstrations will be held over the course of both days, offering everyone a look at rug hooking, lamb cooking, and sheep shearing. There are also unique opportunities to see a sheep show and a sheep dog show! Food vendors will be on site, and a potluck supper and ice cream social will round out the first day’s events. Those interested in purchasing crafts or craft supplies will enjoy perusing the booths of over 60 vendors. What better way to explore a connection to local history, contemporary farm culture, and the amazing substance we know as wool?
- Weaving the Rainbow by George Ella Lyon
- Charlie Needs a Cloak by Tomie dePaola
- Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert
- Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett
- Sheepish by Catherine Friend (Adults)