Wooly Travels: The Fiber Festival of New England

New England used to be a hot bed for wool. For a time, Vermont had more merinos than people. Those days are gone, but there are still many in the region with small flocks. There is enough fiber production happening in that area that all but one of the New England states have their own wool festivals. (Rhode Island, the smallest, is the outlier.) The state festival season kicks off at the end of April with the Connecticut Sheep, Wool, and Fiber Festival and finishes with the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival at the start of October.

But, the entire region comes together for one last woolly hoorah on the first weekend of November every year for the Fiber Festival of New England, hosted by the Eastern States Exposition and the New England Sheep and Wool Growers Association.

The show takes up nearly the entirety of the Mallary Complex on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts. One shouldn’t assume that just because the show fits in one building that is must be small. The Mallary Complex houses massive conventions and space-hungry events like dog trials at other times of the year. During the Fiber Festival of New England, the nearly 130,000 sq feet of space is almost entirely filled.

One end of the building is separated into curtained-off classroom spaces where students gather for classes in knitting, crochet, felting, punch needle, and more. Near the classes, there is space for shearing demonstrations through the day, as well. The far end of the building is home to the fleece sale, vendors, and space for a few sheep and alpaca in pens for visitors to see up close. Between the two ends of the building is a vast area of vendors selling roving, yarn, felt, punch hook supplies, wool blankets, all manner of knitted goods, spinning wheels and other tools.

These Romneys were visitors from Ravenwood Farm. Their owners prepared an informational placard about what to look for in a Romney Fleece. Very helpful for wool newbies!

This year, I was not planning to attend any classes, so I had a late start and arrived a few hours after the event opened to avoid the initial mad dash. I found the wide aisles already bustling with people when I walked in. It was a beautiful day for a fiber festival, but it didn’t really matter as the Mallary Complex is so large that the entire festival fits in one building. Even on rainy years, the mud stays outside; shoppers can browse without dodging the weather, and vendors don’t have to serve customers while fighting with awnings.

I always take the same path through this festival, walking in and straight down the aisle facing the door, progressing back and forth through the building, stopping in booths relevant to my craft, taking time to watch demonstrations and ask questions. When I make it to the end of the building, I head back to the midpoint and work my way and back for through the rest of the space.

The handdyers’ booths are always alluring, and I’m constantly impressed by the handmade items on display–sweaters, shawls, wall hangings, 3-d felted decorations, sheep-themed pottery, and more. But as is usual for me at this stage of my crafting journey, it’s the “farm yarns” that tend to be the ones that draw me in. I marvel at single-breed yarns, taking mental notes about the luster, the loftiness, the drape. One booth this year featured Gotland yarns and BFL yarns, and I just stood between the two, mind buzzing with the fact that both of those very different yarns came from, what even just 5 years ago, I would have identified as the same animal–sheep.

How little did I understand about the varieties of wool available to us then. Like most, I grew up thinking sheep were sheep. They were white and fluffy and lived in green pastures. Sure there were those odd rustics living on the fringes in other parts of the world, but everyone knew that yarn came from the fluffy sheep that could be drawn in their environment using the rarely used White crayon from the box of Crayola.

Little did I know then how many types of sheep there really were out there or how many of those “fringe rustics” actually had really lovely fleeces or had fleeces that were suited to purposes beyond crafting. I knew nothing of the properties of wool beyond the fact that it was nice to knit with from time to time.

Informational signage from breeding societies and vendors go far to educate the consumers at fiber festivals, many of whom may feel intimidated by how much there is to learn or who don’t want to interrupt vendors in the midst of a sale to ask questions.

Oh, how my eyes have been opened. I no longer see sheep. I see Cheviots and Shetlands and Herdwicks and “hey, what’s that one calleds?” This is in large part thanks to the demonstrators and vendors at fiber festivals, who have taken the time to answer questions and prepare informational signage for their booths. The more I learned, the more I obsessed. And the more I knew I needed to drag my already teenaged children to see and learn, so they could know well before I did that wool is a healthy alternative to the plastics we were so comfortable using in our daily life. Now, I have a fashion-student daughter who calls me to tell me her professor is as ga-ga about wool as her mother. Happy day!

When I first attended the Fiber Festival of New England in 2019, the vendor pool was very evenly divided between supplies and finished items, between the various fiber crafts, and between trendy and traditional. Today, I had the sense that the vendor pool has ever-so-slightly shifted toward knitting and other yarn crafts. There did seem to be more felting vendors this year, both needle and wet. And punch needle and fabric crafts were still well represented. But yarn made a slightly stronger showing.

These mini punch hook embroidery kits from J Conner Hooked Rugs had your author contemplating taking up another wool craft.

For many reasons, The Fiber Festival of New England is in my top three fiber festivals of the wooly year, and it’s a solid way to wrap up the event season. Everything–including bathrooms and food trucks–is inside with smooth, hard floors. Aisles are left wide for the attendees to maneuver around one another. They invite spinners, shearers, and historical re-enactors to demonstrate their crafts, instruct, and take questions. The fleece sale area is an impressive size. As already mentioned, the number and variety of vendors is impressive.

In 2023, parking is $5 per car and admission is $7, so attendance is affordable. Classes range from $45-80, some with additional fees to be paid to the instructor for supplies. Many of the vendors have show specials, with either discounts or gifts with purchase.

And, dare I say it? The festival hasn’t been taken over by the celebrity seekers. There aren’t meet ups taking place. There aren’t aisle-blocking clusters of groupies holding up foot traffic because they saw their favorite designer. And that’s not to say that there aren’t famous members of the fiber community in attendance. Just today, I saw an author, a handful of fellow podcasters and YouTubers, several teachers, and two designers who many of you might recognize and would certainly draw attention at other festivals. But at the Fiber Festival of New England, everyone goes about their day, focusing on the fiber, their companions, and this last chance of the season to be out with their fellow wool nerds. It is the largest, still low-key fiber festival of my year.

This dress from Freia Fine Handpaints is a celebrity itself. It stops traffic at festivals wherever it goes!

Long may it last!

If you’re in the area, the Fiber Festival of New England continues today, November 5, 2023. Tickets can be purchased at the door. Future events will take place on the first weekend of November. To learn more, follow them on Instagram or visit their website.