Wednesday, June 26, 2013

39th Annual Black Sheep Gathering

This year's Black Sheep Gathering was June 21-23 and the weekend went by too quickly. My faithful fiber-festival-attending friend Lynda helped me plan our trip and find more people to join us. We were going to have a group of 4 but one had to back out at the last minute (she was sorely missed). Evanita is a fibery friend that went to St Distaff's Day with our Redmond Knits group and her birthday was the night before the gathering started. My birthday was 4 days before the gathering and I asked my husband to take Friday off of work as a present to me. 

Of course I didn't start packing until Thursday, the day we left. My daughter's last day of first grade was Wednesday and at first she was excited to help me pack. I taught her how to roll up clothes to make them more compact and she packed me a snack of Ritz crackers and pretzels inside of a kid's snack cup, a banana, and an apple. She started to say that she wanted to go with me and for a minute I thought it could happen. But this is a vacation for me, and being a stay-at-home mom means having a vacation where the kids stay home. And it wasn't only a vacation, it was a special birthday extravaganza. She started to cry and list reasons she wanted to go (the only real reason was she wanted to sleep in a hotel room) and at the end of the hours-long tantrum I was ready for the break.

I picked up Lynda and Evanita at 5 pm and we left. Traffic was horrible from Redmond to Tacoma and what normally takes 40 minutes took 2 hours. The drive was supposed to be 4.5 hours, but somehow we made up for the traffic jams and got to our hotel in Eugene, Oregon by 11 (?). We stayed at the Timbers Motel because the rates were good, it was a mile away from the fairgrounds, and it was near restaurants, Starbucks, and Voodoo Doughnuts (which we never entered). Our room was a double queen with a squeaky sofa bed and it was larger than I expected.

Friday morning we got up early and at Starbucks met fellow fiber addicts that knew each other from a group on Ravelry. We decided to walk to the fairgrounds, mostly just to see what it was like and how feasible it really was, I'm glad we did after the long drive the night before. I ended up walking about 7 miles that day.

The main reason why Lynda and I wanted to attend was to listen to Judith MacKenzie judge fleeces. Our friends told us that as she judges she speaks about what she sees and that we'll learn a lot listening to her. BSG is also supposed to be the largest fiber festival on the west coast and there are more than 100 vendors. Judging began at 10 am and the marketplace opened at 9 and we arrived on time. Before we made it to the vendor's booths we found Judith walking to her car and I got to talk to her for a few minutes. Evanita's main goal was to see Ed Jenkins and buy a couple of his Turkish drop spindles. We saw the mad rush of Jenkins fans and it was the busiest booth I saw all weekend.

Judging is held in the Wheeler Pavillion across the parking lot from the vendors and animal barns. Listening to Judith is well worth the walk and I recommend getting in early to get a good seat. Sitting in the front row near the middle would be a good idea next time.

Judith judging fleeces, she's the woman wearing black without an apron
This is a description of Judith's judging style from the BSG website: "Judith judges fleece as only she can – with depth of knowledge honed by years of practice, scientific and historical knowledge, patience, creative informality, personal perspective, great humor, and hands-on expertise that demystifies any process." Sums her speaking style up well. (And now I regret not taking notes, but at the same time I don't have a favorite breed yet so I don't know which division I want to focus on.)

If a fleece was large and took up the width and depth of a table Judith would say that you wouldn't want to meet the sheep in a dark alley or that it mated with a polar bear. A friend said that Judith can feel the micron count of a fleece, which is really impressive, and it upset tool-carrying lab technicians. Judith would sadly pull a fleece out of the division it was entered into and put it into another division because the micron count was incorrect. A fleece would remind Judith of a funny story and she'd take a break to share what was making her smile. Before judging the Shetland division, she gave a brief history of what makes the breed unique. It is an ancient breed that behaves more like a pet than a herd animal. Sheep naturally have dual coats (most furry animals do) and some Shetlands still shed their inner coat and would rather be plucked than sheared, which explains their behavior.

During breaks from sitting and listening to Judith I'd walk quickly through the vendor's booths and on Friday I did a pretty good job of not buying fiber that was just for my enjoyment. I bought fiber for teaching new students and maybe bought one batt for me. I was proud of myself. For that one day.

Somehow I ended up buying a Jenkins spindle. Evanita's spindle held singles in a beautiful pattern that looked like a God's Eye. When I lived in Mobridge, SD I would follow my mom to a children's program held in an old church (I think the woman bought the building for $1). We made God's Eyes and were taught some of their significance, but mostly I remember them as being one of the first times that I worked with yarn and sticks. I also bought the spindle because I might find myself being unhappy with spinning pure qiviut on my wheel(s) and need to keep my drop spindle skills honed. Lynda also bought a Jenkins and she got the smallest model for spinning very fine lace-weight singles.

Friday night we stayed up way too late knitting and spinning on our new Turkish spindles. It turned out to be the way that we celebrated the summer solstice.

Saturday morning we got to the fairgrounds by 9 and thought there would be a much larger crowd than Friday. Before juding began I bought some pottery that I fell in love with Friday afternoon. I wanted a matching set to replace random pieces in my kitchen and I also got a yarn bowl in the same glaze. I thought it would help me avoid buying a drum carder or other large prep tools or more fiber. It was supposed to be my splurge of the weekend.

I feel asleep dreaming about the colors in the glaze
I was able to watch the judging of Shetland fleeces and glad I didn't miss it. I'm forgetting how the timeline worked out but I think breakfast wasn't substantial enough and we quickly ate lunch and were back just in time to see Judith award the champion and reserve ribbons.

Judith said that she knew as soon as she saw the merino fleece that she wanted it to get the champion ribbon but it took her a few moments to make sure that was her final decision. I missed seeing it win first place in its division. I'm glad that we went to the show fleece preview so that I could really look at it up close:

First place and also Champion (best in show), a unique multiple color Merino fleece

The preview gives everyone 30 minutes to browse the fleeces and form a plan for which fleece they would like to buy. I didn't know which breed/division I wanted to look at and I'm attracted to wool that is locky and looks kind of like a little washboard. But I also like high crimp wool that would do well spun in the woolen style.

Each fleece has a comment card where a volunteer listens to Judith judge and writes down what she says based on a category or characteristics. I happened to find this dark grey (not quite black) fleece that said "Suitability as a handspinning fleece: Good for Cowichan sweater". I got excited. I got so excited. I don't know what sheep breed were used for Cowichan spinning, the answer might be in the Working with Wool book but I gave that to Lila and haven't found another copy. I'm sure when I find it again I will read it cover-to-cover obsessively. I wanted to ask Judith which breed would be a good match but I didn't get to talk to her beyond the little time that we saw her in the parking lot. I decided that I should listen to a fiber expert's suggestion and try to buy the fleece during the sale.
"Good for Cowichan sweater", a CVM fleece in a dark grey, division 8
I've never been to a show fleece sale before. Lynda held a place in line outside while Evanita and I hemmed and hawed a bit more over all the beautiful choices. A rumor started that the fleeces were moved so that we'd have to find what we want all over again. When the doors opened my heart began to pound a bit, like when you're on a rollercoaster and you finally start to climb up the big first hill. The organizers told us to be nice, not elbows, no running. The fleeces were not moved (the doors were only closed for 10-15 min) and I made a beeline to division 8. The table looked almost empty and my heart sank. But there my fleece was! A volunteer told us that once we touched a fleece it was ours and I'm sure that helped keep many shoppers from wasting time arguing over who saw it or intended to buy it first. I had read the card for the light fleece next to the grey one before and decided to grab it as well.

This CVM fleece was next to the dark grey one in division 8
The line was long for the credit card line and before the sale started Judith's friend Rolly had called me letting me know that a donated loom was ready for me to pick up. So I decided to just write a check for both fleeces. One of Evanita's choices was gone but she found a different one that she had first eyed earlier and decided to get it. We all agreed that these fleeces were cleaner and nicer than any other raw fleeces we've seen or bought before.

While walking through the parking lot back to the van it occurred to me that between the three of us (Lynda will help use/buy the fleeces) we had bought 3 bags of wool. Lynda said "at the Black Sheep Gathering" and the folk rhyme was complete.

Rolly's husband had a loom to donate to Judith in the bed of his truck. In the heat of the day and after the excitement of buying show fleeces I met them and the three of us moved the loom into the back of my van. I didn't stop to think of asking for help from more young people. We figured out how to make the loom fit. Andrea was the contact between me and Rolly and I knew it was possible that the loom could be coming home with us but there was no confirmation (I didn't write my address down and Andrea sent an email to a host that I don't use very often).  But Andrea was sitting listening to the judging and introduced me to Rolly so it worked out. I'm glad I drove the van in case I needed to pick up the loom.

Mystery loom: beautiful wood waiting to be cleaned
I don't know much about weaving looms. The loom is 6 harness (the foot pedal things that move other things) and 45-46" wide. I haven't seen a maker's label on it and Lisa thinks that it's handmade and she likes how it folds up. I'm going to clean it and do some minor repairs, even though I've never owned a loom before. The back of the van looked impressive with the loom, three bags of wool, and all our other treasures but I forgot to take a picture.

My plan to not go overboard on fiber fell apart after loading up the loom. Cowichan sweaters need natural colors but I also love dyed fibers. Dyed fibers feel fun to spin and the transition from one color to the next is fun to watch flow through your fingers. I found myself justifying purchases more than I should have.

Saturday night was a potluck dinner hosted by the BSG committee. A large barbecue cooker provided cooked lamb and the side dishes were brought by everyone else. A band sang country songs and the fiddle/violin reminded me of Nome for some reason. Free food is always yummy and we got to make new friends while eating.

After the potluck we watched the Spinner's Lead. I wasn't sure what was going to happen. It sounded like it was supposed to be people that have never handled a sheep before were going to be told to lead one around by a harness and it was going to be hilarious. What actually happens is people enter a contest with handmade items and write up an introduction and story behind the item. They wear or display their work and borrow a sheep. The second sheep didn't behave and I was scared someone was going to get hurt. The stories and sheep were adorable.

On Sunday we had a looser plan to go back to the gathering and hang out. I snuck off to see if I could find Tom Livernois, wheelwright of the beautiful Magnus Drudik wheels. I'm on the long, long, waiting list and I wanted to meet Tom in person. Tom and his wife Tracy run McTavish Farm Shetlands. I told Tom that I fell in love with Shetlands during the gathering. I didn't know the breed was as small as it is and they are cute with their fluffy coats and skinny, fur-less legs. Tom told me that I'm about 6 years out on the waiting list and there are two more years of waiters beyond me. He showed me a very sweet lamb and we pet her through the pen. I went back to get Lynda and Evanita because we didn't pet any of the show sheep out of respect for the owners and a mild fear of how the sheep would react. We all enjoyed petting the soft lamb. Lynda asked Tracy if we could put an order for a fleece in next year. Buying a fleece directly from a shepard is the next logical step.

The last shopping we did was the worst for my will power. I don't remember when I found my treasures but one of the most exciting for me was finding a small selection of Aztec spindle weights. Judith has a small box of 6,500 year old spindle weights from South America, including small woven dolls made of fine cotton, and spindle wood. She handles the items with a sacredness that I really respect and appreciate. The seller told me that she bought them from a collector and there is no certification of age but she also knows that they weren't excavated recently.

There was a mawata silk hankie knitting demonstration hosted by one of the dyers behinds Abstract Fibers. I love the shine of silk but I don't really enjoy spinning top and silk blends are a bit frustrating for me. I could see my daughter helping me open up the hankies and my intuition was correct. The hankie shopping spree spurred more shopping sprees. I might not need fiber for the rest of my life.

The drive home was long and rainy. We watched a pickup truck traveling in the opposite direction after it spun out come to a quick stop while hugging the concrete guardrail. At first I thought the truck was swimming because of how it was moving up and down while kicking water our over the rail.

We're planning on attending next year. If you are a spinner and live nearby it's worth the drive. Vendors that I've seen at other local shows bring out more of their fiber inventory. BSG also supports colored sheep, which goes against the global wool industry. BSG supports the preservation of rare colored breeds and Judith said while judging that dark wools overdye beautifully.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post!!! Your captured even the finest details of our trip. I had such a wonderful time with you and Lynda and can't wait for another fiber adventure. Of course I really need to work on my stash it's getting a bit out of hand now LOL