A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Don’t Be Sheepish, Have Yourself a Good Time: The NYS Sheep and Wool Festival 2014

by Rebecca Shea   

How many sheep does it take to knit a sweater? Don’t be silly—sheep can’t knit! And neither can I, for that matter. But I live in handknit wool sweaters and scarves because wellmade, handmade wool garments are cozy, durable, eye-catching, and more meaningful than a store-bought item—perfect for country living.

Hand-dyed yarn from White Barn Sheep and Wool Farm in 
New Paltz, NY. Photo by Joan Horton.
Each October, I make sure to get to the Wool and Sheep Festival at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck for wooly inspiration. The colors and creativity of the goods exhibited by small-scale sheep farmers, spinners, dyers, designers, and garment creators at this festival is exceptional.

“Rhinebeck,” as it is simply referred to by “knitties,” is the largest sheep and wool festival in the country. There are hundreds of vendors, more than a dozen sheep farming exhibitors, dog shows, 4-H competitions, cooking demonstrations, fiber workshops, food vendors, and children’s activities. It’s a sensory explosion of colorful skeins, complex yarns, luxuriant soaps, adorable sheep, and yummy food.

Now in its 42nd year, the festival is organized and managed by a committee of volunteers and the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Growers Association, an organization that promotes and develops the sheep industry in the Hudson Valley. Held annually on the third weekend in October, this year’s event will be open to the public on Saturday, October 18 from 9am to 5pm, and Sunday, October 19 from 10am to 5pm.

Over 14,000 people attend the festival each year. It is a massive event and things can get a little crazy. If you are new to the fair and just want to browse, going on Sunday after the “knitties” have shopped is your best strategy. Prepare yourself for traffic on Route 9 and please keep your dogs at home. No pets allowed—unless it is a super cute lamb that you carry in your purse, and then maybe no one will tell on you. (Kidding!)

Keep an eye out for the many local Hudson Valley businesses that will be at the event, such as the Hudson Valley Sheep & Wool Company from Red Hook. They carry their own Shetland and Icelandic yarn, batts, roving, and sheets of felt. Dashing Star Farm from Millerton will also be there selling their gorgeous wools in a sophisticated palette of natural colors from their unique cross breed of sheep (English Romney and Border Leicester). They also sell very pretty sheepskins. Don’t miss the indie dyers, Into the Whirled Fiber Art. Usually available online only, these hand dyers bring their vivid yarns from the Catskills to Rhinebeck each year. This is an exclusive opportunity to see and handle their goods before purchasing.
Local Hudson Valley knitter Paula Kucera, owner of  the stylish knitting shop White Barn Farm Sheep and Wool in New Paltz, is headed to Rhinebeck not as a vendor but as a member of the Ulster County Handspinners Guild. This organization is devoted to teaching, promoting, and encouraging the art of handspinning. Check out one of their demonstrations.

The festival is great for the whole family. Kids can walk around and admire the different breeds of animals, watch demonstrations of sheep shearing, canine Frisbee frolicking, or sheep herding dogs corralling their charges. Children’s activities are planned throughout the weekend by Mad Science, Ed the Wizard, and Saugerties’ Fiber Flame Studio who is hosting arts and crafts workshops. Kids can learn wet felting techniques, finger knitting, and yarn painting with embroidery.

The festival has good eats too. Don’t miss Aba’s Falafel stand, the French Artichoke stand, or the spun maple cotton candy. The lines are long for these yummy treats but the pause will give you time to admire all the special “Rhinebeck Sweaters” on parade.
Knitting-up a special “Rhinebeck Sweater” is a festival tradition. Whether you create a new shawl, sweater, hat, or wear an enduring favorite, this is the place to show it off. Participants strive to impress each other with their wool finery. The skill and creative talent of so many of the knitters that attend Rhinebeck is phenomenal. Complete strangers publicly compliment each other because this crowd truly appreciates every twist and stitch of the yarn.
General admission tickets are $12 a day at the gate, pre-purchased tickets $9 a day. Two- day weekend passes are available for pre-purchase as well at $17. Free parking. The entire fairgrounds is wheelchair accessible; however, there will be no wheelchair or scooter rentals this year.