A WOOLLY GOOD TIME

 

 

The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is one of my favorite fall events in the Hudson River Valley. A celebration of all things sheepish, it’s a showplace for rare heirloom breeds of sheep as well as llamas, alpacas, angora goats and rabbits, and sheep herding dogs whose talents extend to Frisbee-catching.

A mecca for weavers, spinners, knitters and hookers, the festival promotes a niche in American agriculture that appears to be thriving thanks to thousands of artisans and the farmers who are dedicated to preserving and promoting livestock that produce the finest fleeces.

There are miles of gorgeous yarns of every texture and color, and an overwhelming selection of hand-knit and woven hats, gloves, scarves, blankets, and any kind of woolly accessory you could imagine (and some you couldn’t.) There are schlocky crafts and some genuine folk art, too, from hooked rugs to quirky creatures made from felt.

The festival offers the obligatory demonstrations of sheep-shearing, spinning wheels, and border collies, as well as a “punkin’ chunkin’ contest,” a competition between students of engineering and physics who design “medieval-style catapults, trebuchets and ballistas to launch pumpkins at specific targets for points.”

The contest was once based on distance, but the students got so good at propelling their pumpkins that the contest’s goal now is accuracy. Will this advancement squash all those rumors that our students are falling behind in science?

We fell in love with the miniature sheep, a centuries-old English breed named Southdown, now marketed as “Olde English Babydoll Southdown Miniature Sheep.” The Southdown was famous for its extreme hardiness and “a carcass with tenderness and flavor unmatched by any other breed,” but its small size nearly doomed it to extinction after World War II when consumer demand for larger cuts of meat forced breeders to produce bigger sheep.

Small flocks of Southdowns were rediscovered sometime around 1990, and breeders dedicated to preserving heritage species now market the Babydoll Southdowns for their fleece, or as four-legged lawn mowers. Their teddy bear-like faces and compact size literally save their hides, because they are apparently too cute to eat, despite their reputedly fine flavor.

Many lambs are not so lucky, as evidenced by the lines at the lamb burger stand. We had lamb burgers and lamb ravioli for lunch, and after trying on silly sheepskin hats that dwarfed our heads in an Afro-esque explosion of wooliness, we accomplished our primary mission: to buy more woolly mice for our cat.

The woolly mice are so well made that after three years of abuse the last one we bought is only just starting to show signs of wear and tear. They are handwoven, with felt ears and a fluffy chenille tail, and stuffed with freshly harvested homegrown catnip. All this for only $6.50! American craftsmanship at its finest.