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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wool Fair Savvy For First-Time Fair-Goers

Every Mother's Day weekend my hubby drives me 200 miles to the Minnesota Shepherd's Harvest Festival. It's a lot of fun, even for my non-spinning spouse, who hangs out in the livestock barns and chats with farmers. There are sheep dog demos, shearing demos, fiber arts classes, and lots of junk food. Every wool product imaginable is on sale - rovings, yarn, batts, and bags and bags and BAGS of fleece. The above photo is typical of a small booth. And yes, it makes my mouth water.

Here are a few Do's and Don'ts for a visit to the Fiber Fair in your area.

Take cash.
Take a shopping list - do your homework ahead of time and write down the fleeces you're specifically looking for.
Make a quick circuit of the fleece sales and find your Must Have fleeces first. You can browse later.
Ask questions. Most sheep growers love to talk about their sheep. Find out if the sheep have worn coats (more exensive). Check to make sure you are buying a fleece from this year's clip - last year's clip may be harder to wash and should be discounted. Ram's fleece/ewe's fleece/lamb's fleece? If it's not labeled, ask.
Handle the goods. Pull out a staple and check its length, strength, color, and amount of dirt. Check the tips for matting or brittleness or discoloration. Dig gently through the wool and look for really dirty stuff - caked manure, big chunks of alfalfa or straw.
Sniff. Put your face near the bag of fleece and take a good whiff. It should not smell like manure.
Bargain. Fleeces are usually labeled with prices but if you buy two or more from the same person make an offer. This is especially worthwhile toward the end of the fair - farmers don't want to haul the fleeces back home.
Remember the grease. You will lose up to 40 percent of the weight of the fleece after scouring, depending on the breed. Calculate that into the per pound cost.
Carry wet wipes if you don't like the feel of wool grease on your hands. I just rub it in, but that's not for everyone.
Buy The Big Stuff if you have planned ahead. This might be a great day to pick up your second spinning wheel or first loom. If you're in the market and have an idea of what you want, you might get a good "fiber fair" deal. Be sure to check prices ahead of time - the deal may or may not really be a deal. Be sure the equipment dealer is a genuine business and can support your warranty. Get contact info. Ask if the fair deal extends for a few days afterwards - give yourself time to be sure.
Get on the Mailing List for next year.

Shop without a plan.
Seriously. This is a big temptation. Unless you limit yourself to the cash you brought, you could end up with a basement full of dirty wool and no money in the bank.
Buy Impulsively. If you purchase a fleece you should have spent a good amount of time examining it and talking to the farmer.
Hurry. If you buy a raw fleece and process it all the way to a knitted garment you are going to spend a LOT of time with that baby. Be sure you love it, that it is good quality, within your budget, and is a fleece you are capable of processing. For instance, if a fleece needs combing and all you have are hand cards, Just Say No. (Or step over to the wool supplies table and buy combs.)
Park Far Away. If you have to pay for close-up parking, do it. Otherwise you'll be hiking back and forth to your car with big bags of wool.

I love the fiber fair. It is a highlight of my year. Get to one if you can, go with a friend or fun-loving Significant Other.

Happy Spinning!


  1. I have not been to one as yet and didn't have a clue what to expect. Thank you for this invaluable info!

  2. I get so envious when people talk about wool festivals! There aren't really any in Southern California, or anywhere driveable.

    I may have to fly out one year. Hope the person sitting next to me on the return flight doesn't mind the smell of wool grease, haha!

  3. Wool grease smells like hand cream to me! Mmmmmm.