Fiber Fairs Offer Products, Lessons, and Feelings of Unity

Raising angora rabbits and selling their fur or yarn has been an idea for extra income that I’ve been exploring for several years now.  Well, I say it’s all about the money, but I’ve got a weakness for anything with a fuzzy face, so I’m sure I would be giving and receiving lots of love and fuzzy bunny kisses in this venture as well.

But, as with anything, once you create it, you have to market and sell it.  And that seems to be one of my biggest worries: once I get started, where will I sell my fur or yarn?

Well, believe it or not, there is a festival somewhere in this world for just about every passion.  In fact, here in West Virginia we even have a roadkill festival!  Of course, they don’t really serve roadkill at the festival, just animals that commonly become roadkill.  But that is neither here nor there.  The fact is, that all across the country there are fiber fairs and festivals.  These festivals are not only a great place to sell your fiber products, but also a great place to bond with fellow fiber enthusiasts of all types from those who raise the animals for their fiber, to spinners, knitters, and those who engage in other types of fiber art.

I decided to check out one these festivals myself recently, so I attended the Olde Liberty Fibre Fair of Bedford, Virginia, an annual event which took place on a Saturday in April at Goode View Alpaca Farm located in Goode, Virginia.  Owned by Jim and Lisa Beck, the farm is reputed to breed top-quality alpacas selected from the most elite lineage and farms in the country.  They also have a farm store called the Natural Alpaca Shop and Learning Center where they have many alpaca goods and other gift items.

Let me set the scene for you: rolling hills in the background and strolling alpacas in the pasture surrounding the festival grounds.  I first went behind the main building, where the Beck’s sell their own Alpaca yarn and fiber products, and found rows and rows of tents with vendors selling fiber products and more: they were selling skeins of yard, balls of yarn, hats, mittens, sweaters, tanned pelts, cat toys, as well as baskets and hand-carved wooden instruments, and someone was selling lamb cuts (which is pretty darned hard to find at the supermarket).

At first glance, I was distracted by some cute ram lambs with tiny nubs on their heads where horns would someday be, and some very fluffy, white herding-puppies, not to mention the alluring smell of deep-frying Oreos and sizzling pepper steak at the concession stand, but I tried to stay on course and go for the things that would teach me most about my planned vocation.

As I envision myself raising rabbits and either cutting or plucking their hair, I realize that there would probably be more opportunities to sell my products if I could sell both hair and yarn, so I’ve considered the idea of learning to spin.  I haven’t even touched a sewing machine since fifth-grade home-economics class, but spinning wheels look easy to me, so I asked around.

Julie Jeavons, her daughter, Olivia, and their resident foreign exchange student, Caroline Johannessen, were giving spinning demonstrations at the fair.  Julie assured me that spinning wasn’t quite as easy as it looked, noting that she initially took classes for several months and has practiced for around 10 years.  But then Olivia said she’d been spinning since she was eight years old.  “I thought it was fun,” Olivia said, noting that she picked it up as a fun activity and then just kept on.  So, I guess I won’t know until I try, and Jeavons was a bit too protective of her spinning wheel and yarn to let anybody come in and mess it up.

She did, however, tell me a lot about the process her fur goes through before she gets to spin it.

She said she harvests fiber from the Rambouillet sheep they raise on Rose Lane Farm in Rocky Mount, Virginia. She then sends it to a fiber mill in Michigan.  At the mill, it is washed, carded, and made it into rovings so the fibers are all going in one direction and ready to be spun.  She dyes her own yarn in a dye-vat at home and says she always uses natural dyes that are homemade.

“For instance, black beans make a beautiful blue dye,” she said. “I usually let it sit in the vat for a couple of hours and then hang it on the clothesline to dry.”  She sells it at a local knitting shop.

But washing, carding, spinning, and dying are not all that goes into the making of a ball of yarn.  Down at the other end of the fair, Susan Myers demonstrated how to use special devices to make skeins of yarn into balls of yarn.  She used a swift, which is a type of wheel that is used for keeping the skeins untangled while a ball-winder turns around and around, spinning the yarn into a ball.  She said that you can purchase either an electrically-powered one such as hers, or one with a hand crank at the base.  She explained that the skein must be positioned just so when it is wrapped onto the swift because slightly crossed pieces of yarn can mess up the entire ball.

“They need to be perfectly straight, to begin with, because they can get tangled and that can be a disaster,” she said. “You need to check every tie to make sure they are not crossed over.”

So, there was an aspect of yarn-making that I’d never considered, and one or two more machines to buy.  She said she spent about $400 for the two.  Hmmm… I guess I’ll just take things a little at a time and maybe pick up some of these skills once my bunny ranch is further established.  I already have visions of an Internet site for Kish Mountain Bunny Ranch with a logo similar to a Playboy Bunny silhouette (but not so similar as to give grounds for a lawsuit).  Who knows how many people who have the wrong impression and wrong intentions might be drawn to the site?  Oh well, a hit‘s a hit, right?

For my first fiber article for Homestead.org, “Rabbits, Rabbits Everywhere (And Look at All That Hair!)”, I interviewed Leslie Shelor, owner of Greenberry House Yarn, Book and Vintage Gift shop in Meadows of Dan, Virginia.  At the time of that interview, she had previously raised German Angora rabbits but had taken a short hiatus.  I happened to run into Leslie at the fair and she said she is now back in business with the bunny fur.  She said she has three rabbits, but they are retirees and she doesn’t think she’ll be breeding them.

Leslie advised me that, since Angora-rabbit yarn is quite expensive, she has found that she can lower the cost by blending it with sheep wool, which also holds its shape better.

“It brings the cost of the yarn down from 24 to 28 cents per yard to 18 cents per yard,” she said, noting that she puts it on a spindle and weaves the two into yarn.

Felted fairy garden

At the next booth, I found that if I never catch on to this carding-and-spinning-and spindling stuff, felting is actually a viable option.  Janice Stegall-Seibert of Felted Song Fiber in Louisa, Virginia had a variety of whimsical fairies with felted balls for heads and soft, flowing dresses of combed fiber, as well as other items like bowls and purses that she has created by felting wool.

Put simply, felting is the process of wetting down wool, adding some soap and rubbing it together until all of the fibers get entwined and become one.  You can do this to shape small balls for cat toys or for the heads of the whimsical fairies Janice sells, or you can flatten it out into sheets.  She also demonstrated another way of felting by using a needle to punch the fibers into a piece of stretched cloth to specifically shape her felt and add different colors. With this more specific technique, she has made lapel pins of felt.

Felt bowls

Janice said she uses sheep wool in her felting and she buys it online or at fiber fairs.  She said she first got into felting as a hobby when was trying to take it easy while healing from an illness.  She said the first thing she made was a felted Santa Claus, then she started making the fairy sprites and other whimsical figures, as well as more practical things such as this marvelous invention: felted soap!  Touted on its label as being “for good clean fun,” Janice has encased a soap bar inside of felt so the felt lathers up with soap and exfoliates as it cleans.  She said wool is also naturally antibacterial.

And, get this!  As your soap shrinks from use, the felt cover shrinks right along with it. I thought that was fascinating.  At last, something good about the fact that wool shrinks so easily!  My ex-husband didn’t think it was anything good about the time I tossed his favorite sweater in the dryer and made it small enough to fit a toy poodle.

Ginger Ausband of Bedford was one of several people giving demonstrations and classes at the fiber festival.  She was using various methods to color fabric from batik (a technique of wax-resist dyeing) to acrylic ink, henna, markers, and tie-dying.

She explained the chemistry behind various techniques of coloring fabrics, such as why one should use alginate as a thickener, and soda ash to make the fabric more receptive to the color, and how urea slows the action of the dye.  During our conversation, Ginger mentioned that she homeschooled her children and that teaching them this sort of thing in the home also helped them learn about such school subjects as chemistry.

At that point, I came to realize that there is a collective consciousness among the vendors and attendees of embracing the homesteading movement, and each person or family has its own story, from Julie Jeavon passing on her spinning to her daughter, to Ginger Auzband, who has made homesteading skills such as cooking, canning, and fabric-dying parts of her homeschooling process.

And while some fiber enthusiasts may have come from generations of farmers, others are quite new to it but share the same love of nature and desire to be self-sufficient.  For instance, Jim and Lisa Beck both grew up in the city. “We met and got married, then moved to New Jersey,” says Jim, “From there we moved to Paoli, Pennsylvania, where our son Jimmy went to Conestoga High, and a month before Jimmy was to graduate, I said to Lisa, ‘Let’s do it.’ She looked at me like I was crazy!  I said, ‘Let’s have a change of life; let’s buy a farm!’  I was looking into raising alpacas for about three years and in the search, we had also come across some of the most amazing people that also raise alpacas.  We have not found anyone in this community who is not ready to help you!  It sounds crazy but maybe it’s the whole lifestyle, so here we go.  We sold the house in a day (yeah, one day… go figure).  We bought a farm 350 miles south the next week (and no we didn’t have family or friends in the area already).  This is a whole new experience, and we haven’t looked back since.”

Incidentally, in addition to their alpacas and alpaca products, the Becks were displaying several new members to the family during the fair: three very cute, very white, and very soft Maremma Sheepdog puppies.  These are a special type of Italian herding-dog that takes its guarding of alpacas or any livestock very seriously, and bonds with them in an adorable sort of way.

Jim described how the dogs will bow their heads in submission when around alpacas or sheep in order to show them that they mean no harm, and it’s not unusual to see a Maremma Sheepdog curled up for a nap with a sheep or alpaca.  However, Maremmas spend most of their time patrolling the perimeter of the pasture so they can bark off wolves or other wild animals that might attack their precious herd.

“For 2,000 years this has been bred into them, so it is instinctive,” Jim said. “They just naturally know what to do.”

Over the course of my day at the Olde Liberty Fibre Fair, I began to get the impression that fabric festivals aren’t strictly about fabric, as there were also wood spinners, flute and dulcimer makers, and basket weavers.  So, those of you who create any sort of handmade product may do well to consult the guidelines of each festival individually to see if you might be able to be a vendor.

How does one define fabric anyway?  Are pet-food bags made of fiber?  Regardless, Dee Bray-Ware, who cleverly goes by the name “Dee Bag Lady”, came up with something pretty unusual: carryall tote-bags made out of pet-food bags!  Dee used her sewing expertise to cut the bags in just the right places, reinforce critical areas with double stitching in some areas, even triple stitching in others, and zig-zagged for extra strength.  She said she even sews crosshatch reinforcement at the base.  What does all of that mean?  I don’t know, ‘cause I don’t sew; but I’m assuming they’re really strong.  Then she adds handles to create tote bags that you can use for groceries, as beach bags, picnic bags, storage bags… you name it.

At any rate, people who buy a lot of animal feed are likely to attend fiber festivals, and people who believe in recycling are sure to be happy about this idea.

She uses feed bags of dogs, cats, donkeys, chickens, goats, and rabbits, and she makes a deal with people that if they give her 10 bags, they get one free tote, and if they give her 30 more, she’ll give them another.  She said she has made over 400 bags in the past three years and has been selling them at craft shows.

There were 33 vendors at this festival and I regret not having a chance to interview each and every one, but I’ve tried to give you a sampling so you’ll know what to expect and what to look for.  I have found several websites that include listings of fiber fairs and festivals across the country from the Ozark Fiber Fling, to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, to the Hoosier Hills Fiber Fest, and on, and on.  Find one in your area and make a day, or a weekend, of it.  You won’t be disappointed.  To get you started, here are two websites with calendars of fiber fairs and festivals: http://fiberarts.org/calendar/ and http://www.ozarkfiberfling.com/fiber-arts-event-calendar/.

Kathy Kish

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Kathy Kish

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