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Three stout, white, long-haired goats in the corner of a pen.

Dan Melamed displayed his prize-winning Angora goats at the 2023 New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.

Photo by Chandler Zausner

  • With Every Fiber: Breeders and Craft Artisans of the New York Sheep and Wool Festival

    Just off the highway, beyond a one-lane bridge on a country road, a donkey brays a warning to approaching cars. To the side of a red barn, on a gravel drive, a tall white-haired man carries a water bucket to a ram who has patiently waited for a pedicure, after which his robust attendant will scrub and curry comb the animal’s fleece.

    Soon, the man’s wife takes over preparing their prized animals for competition by clipping and shaping their coats. Later in the week, the couple—Chuck and Heidi Simmons—will load the best of their Wil-Hi Farm flock into an aluminum trailer and travel the short distance to the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival.


    Heidi’s love of sheep began with two black-faced, white-wool Suffolk sheep, Fuzzy and Wuzzy, which her dad, Wilson Hamm, bought for her after she suffered a serious head injury. At the age of nine, Heidi fell from a horse, a tragedy that robbed her of her earlier childhood memories. Wilson felt that sheep might be therapeutic and a safer hobby for his now recovering child. Heidi began showing her sheep in 4-H club events. Although she never recaptured her memory, the family gained a love of sheep which has persisted for half a century.

    Chuck often heard vague stories of his grandfather raising sheep in Fayetteville, New York, but the family dog was the only animal he experienced before meeting Heidi thirty-seven years ago. Since retiring, Chuck has become more involved in the daily work of sheep farming. Chuck provides the muscle on the farm—wrangling sheep and milking goats—while Heidi remains the author of their prize-winning natural breeding program with several national champions to her credit.

    Wilson, at age eighty-six, still shows up every day for his own chores. Chuck and Wilson laugh as they reminisce about the effort of double-washing the 200-pound Suffolk sheep, drenching them in fifty-gallon tubs of cold water, flipping them on their backs, and then trimming the fleece, in the days before “slick shearing” or close shaving became the standard with meat breeds. The family is a close-knit unit of three who work together every day.


    Gray sheep in a dark barn.
    Early morning on the Wil-Hi Farm
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    Sheep peer from a small pen within a trailer.
    The farm’s best ewes head off to the festival.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Lambing season has begun on Wil-Hi Farm, ninety miles north of New York City in the heart of the Hudson Valley. There, Heidi continues to breed her animals selectively, maximizing conformity to attain the highest wool standards. Rather than using artificial insemination, she allows the sheep to breed naturally so that they do not lamb all at once but over an entire season , from late fall to early spring. Four goats provide a safety net for lambs that need supplemental nutrition. Chuck freezes their milk to use instead of commercial milk replacer.


    A soft morning mist obscures the bustling Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, New York, as the proud owners of the Wil-Hi Farm prepare for the first day of competition. As Wilson’s beautiful stained-glass sign hanging above the pens proclaims, they will showcase purebred Merino and Rambouillet sheep, prized for their dual purpose of excellent wool and high-quality meat. They will also market and sell breed stock at the festival, held annually in October since 1980.

    Although Heidi insists that she has become less competitive lately, before the end of the weekend, she will proudly display multiple ribbons in their booth. Other farmers in plaid shirts, down vests and sturdy boots stop by to share a cup of hot cider, warmly greeting this couple as longtime friends. Chuck and Heidi have the homefield advantage as local organizers of the Black and White Sheep Show, and their visitors value their expertise, approval, and warm welcome.

    A man leads a dark-colored sheep into an outdoor covered pavilion. Another sheep is in a pen.
    The Simmons family prepares their livestock display.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A woman sheers a white sheep.
    Heidi Simmons shapes a sheep’s fleece a final team before competition.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Across the two days of the festival, 25,000 attendees visit 300 fiber and wool vendors; show off their handmade sweaters; take dozens of classes booked months in advance; view a cavalcade of llamas, alpacas and goats; compete in carding, spinning, and weaving challenges; and crowd into busy vendor booths to stockpile hard-to-find fiber for their winter projects.

    At the top of a rolling hill set against a mosaic of fall foliage, another aspect of the wool and fiber production process is on display, as breeders from across the country compete in the Black and White Sheep Show, attend a farm machinery auction, visit the breed barn, and purchase breed stock from other shepherds. Most attendees watch demonstrations of sheepdogs and sheep shearing, but farmers are focused on grooming their flocks to win competitions. Sheep are pulled from their pens and raised on metal trimming stands for last-minute grooming—a spectacle for tourists but a serious art and business for these farmers.


    Directly across from the sheep barn, Dan Melamed is seated on a hay bale with his flock, waiting to compete in the Northeast Angora Goat Show.

    “My grandmother taught me to knit years ago, and I thought, boy, wouldn’t it be fun to have a sheep you can shear once a year and knit a sweater from?”

    People lead a row of shaggy goats through a pavilion.
    Theresa Bergeron judges the Angora Goat Show.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Over the past twenty-three years, when he wasn’t in the office, this Hudson, New York-based urologist built a flock of Cormo and Cormo Cross sheep along with Angora goats from Texas. Dan is proud that this region’s Angora goat breeders are preserving their “quality genetics.”

    “Hopefully, someday, people will say, ‘I really don’t want a sweater made out of recycled plastic bottles,’ and mohair and wool will start being reimbursed in the way it ought to be for the amount of work that goes into it.”

    He’s looking forward to retiring to his 185-acre farm in Gallatin, New York, to devote his time to developing his flock for the fine mohair market, in the hopes of a coming resurgence in natural fibers.


    Bruce McCord of Ewe’ll Wonder Farm in Milan, New York, began his flock with a single sheep bought at the festival in 1980.

    “We threw her in the back of the station wagon and took her home. And that’s where it all started.”

    McCord had been raised on a dairy farm, while his wife’s family kept horses, but each wanted a change. They started with the larger Suffolk sheep, then shifted to white-faced Dorsets both for their superior mothering instincts and their ability to give birth year-round. Rising feed costs shifted them to the even smaller Southdown breed, which are “just as prolific as the Dorset and helped out when the kids and grandkids were on the show at the fair—a little easier handling those small sheep.”

    Today, their farm raises lambs for what is known as “the ethnic market,” where methods of slaughter conform to halal and kosher dietary laws and align with specific holiday demand. Bruce is excited about recent ultrasounds that showed all forty of his ewes had bred. He plans to process both Easter “hothouse” lambs and the larger “freezer” lambs next season. With the dwindling number of contract butchers, he worries about the challenge of scheduling meat- processing dates but feels lucky that he has found a profitable outlet for his products.

    He wonders about the future of the farm. His children and grandchildren help to feed and care for his flock, including taking care of lambs and showcasing at fairs. He seems hopeful, but he also resigned, “We’ll just have to wait and see what the future brings.”


    Under a banner for Flying Fibers, a display of dyed yarn and sweaters and a woman holding a toddler.
    Irina Lawrence Mathias and her daughter, Ksenia, manage the popular Flying Fibers retail booth
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Another multigenerational family business, Flying Fibers in York County, Pennsylvania, hands down a shared passion for rare breeds that started with a single sweater. Jeri Robinson Lawrence traveled with her Yorkshireman husband to England, where she fell in love with a special yarn. This inspired Jeri to attempt to breed a flock of British Wensleydale on her farm in Pennsylvania, where she helped to create a standard for a new North American Wensleydale.

    “I like the luster, the length, the curls. I just thought you put [the sheep] on an airplane and bring it home, but that wasn’t the case,” she laughs.

    They began importing sheep semen in the mid-1990s to crossbreed with Leicester Longwools and Cotswolds, in an effort to recreate the heritage breed here in North America. The Lawrences are primarily wool farmers who hand-dye their own wool as well as imported fibers from England. Flying Fibers also raises purebred Shetland sheep, grows lavender, and markets the farm-shop experience to Pennsylvania Dutch-area tourists who want to learn more about unique breeds and understand the “sheep-to-yarn” process.

    “Our whole purpose is education and keeping the rare breeds alive,” Jeri says.  

    Their daughter, Irina Lawrence Mathias, is in a graduate marketing program so that she can continue to expand the wool and textile business for her two-year-old daughter, Ksenia. Seeing three generations of shepherdesses surrounded by their unique sheep provides hope for the continuation of these traditions.


    A more unusual approach to animal husbandry can be found at Clover Brooke Farm in Hyde Park, where Michael and Andrea Tibbets raise llamas and alpacas on their 1850s homestead. They also raise Pangora goats, a cross between pygmy and Angora goats, which produce beautiful fleece two to three times a year. The fibers are collected and sent to a local mill to be made into yarn and other fiber products.

    A woman smiles, standing next to a llama in a harness.
    Andrea Tibbets poses with one of her rescue llamas in the Camelid Fiber Animal Barn.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    People lead white and brown llamas through a crowd.
    Alpacas and their 4-H handlers line up for the crowd-favorite Leaping Llama event.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    The Tibbets originally used llamas as livestock guardians for their escaping dairy goats and later began a unique animal-rescue program for llamas and alpacas. The farm also hosts an active 4-H Spitters Club (named for a common camelid behavior), which teaches young members how to train and care for breeds seldom found outside their South American habitat.

    To offset maintenance costs, Andrea offers unique animal experiences that “some may classify as ‘agri-tainment,’ but I like to classify as ‘edu-tourism.’” Visitors can participate in llama and alpaca hikes, goat and donkey walks, soap-making classes, and summer camp activities. At the fairgrounds, young teens from the 4-H Spitters Club participate in the Camelid Parade, an obstacle course, and the audience favorite: the Leaping Llama Contest. Participants come away from the “agri-tourism” experience with a deeper understanding of animal-fiber farming.


    Off to the side of the sheep barn, in a small white tent, Donald Kading and his partner of twenty years, Michelle Kelly, are demonstrating the craft of shearing for a curious audience. For forty-seven years, Donald has been traveling from farm to farm and shearing sheep, a skill he learned as a teen, through 4-H and Cooperative Extension agents.

    Michelle wrangles a single sheep from the mixed herd as Donald revs up his shears.

    “Flip ’em up, head around, put ’em on their butt. Now they sit there with their feet off the ground. They don’t feel threatened tucked between my knees.”

    He first discards the belly and crotch fleece and then removes four and a half pounds of wool that he lifts to display as one continuous piece. His hands are shiny with lanolin, a natural secretion that protects sheep from weather and parasites.

    Donald still shears close to 1,500 sheep a year, as well as alpacas, llamas, and Angora goats. However, his is a diminishing workforce that struggles to meet the demand of local farmers and their flocks.

    A man bends down, shearing a sheep on the ground between his legs.
    Donald Kading demonstrates his precise craft.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    The man holds up a large swath of sheep fleece.
    Then he displays the fleece to the crowd.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner


    On two tables, many clear plastic bags full of fluffy fleece. One table is label White and the other Natural Colored.
    Unwashed fleece entries are sorted for judging by breed, color, and fiber.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    Three bags of fleece, each with award ribbons.
    Winners include Wil-Hi Farm’s Supreme Champion Fleece.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    The most popular festival venue for fleece growers, spinners, felters, and rug hookers is the Fleece Show and Sale. Mary Drumm is the elder stateswoman of the Fleece Room, presiding over dozens of entries and sorting them by category. Rosanne Ashbury, a volunteer with the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Growers Association, explains the judging criteria as she travels up and down the endless rows. As a spinner, Rosanne can’t help but stop to caress a unique array of her favorite fleece.

    “The wool doesn’t bring in as much money as it should. It’s a fabulous textile. It lasts forever.”

    She explains the different breeds of white fleece and the scoring methods of fine, medium, and long fleece; natural colored dark fleece, chocolate, and almost black, as well as grays.

    “To touch the fleece and to feel the fleece, to be connected from the beginning, to get the fleece, to wash it, to process it and to comb it, to spin it and then to create an object from it—it’s like being connected to the earth and finally connected to the source.”

    Mary and Rosanne cannot hide their affection for both the process and the variation that contributes to the richness of the raw source materials that buyers will eventually process.

    Adjacent to the Fleece Show and Sale, spectators marvel at a three-hour intensive demonstration of the subsequent steps from fleece to shawl. They peer over shoulders as a mound of wool fleece is magically transformed into a beautiful garment. Veteran spinners and weavers enthusiastically embrace the key players while novices look on in awe at these real-life Rumpelstiltskins.

    Teamwork is the key to this good-natured competition where five teams of five take turns to card, ply, spin, and weave pre-washed and sometimes overdyed fleece onto a loom with a preloaded warp. Points are awarded for use of natural dye materials, such as plants and insects, and the quality and artistry of the finished product. Two local teams from Red Hook and one each from New York City, Rhode Island, and Connecticut scramble to arrange their decorative sets, which each reflect a team theme.

    A small group in a circle works on yarn spinning wheels.
    Dream Weavers
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A small group in a circle works on yarn spinning wheels and a loom.
    Twisted Sisters
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    “The most stressful part of the competition is getting that first bobbin wound and put on the shuttle, which the weaver sends across the warp and beats it in to create the fabric,” explains Alice Johns Seeger, the event judge from Belfast, Maine.

    Three hours later, the finished shawl must measure a minimum of eighteen inches wide and seventy-two inches long and be off the loom by the closing bell.

    Yankee Fiber Friends has returned after a four-year absence with a unique theme closely tied to their “Quiet Corner” region of northeastern Connecticut. No Place Like Gnome thematically combines their love of forest gnomes with this year’s spectacular bloom of their state flower, the pink and white mountain laurel, which covers their National Heritage Corridor Last Green Valley home.

    Sharon, along with her teammates Myra, Becky, Sue, and Lauren, explains, smiling, “When you wrap up in our shawl, you’ll feel warm and comforted and like there’s No Place like Gnome.” Their hard work, planning, and organization was rewarded with a first-place finish.

    People inspect a pink and green woven shawl laid flat on a table.
    No Place Like Gnome
    Photo by Chandler Zausner


    The charm to be found at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival is the devotion to time-honored traditions and individual flair that each family farm, craft guild, and specialty manufacturer brings to this small-town venue. Heidi Simmons reminds us, “The festival started as a sheep sale and a handful of vendors. Because of the countless amount of volunteer hours, it has grown into what most consider the best sheep and wool festival in the country.”

    In 2023, Wil-Hi Farm’s Merino yearling won the sheep world’s “best-in-class” Supreme Champion Ewe and Supreme Champion Fleece. Their Merino ram dominated as Champion Natural Colored Fleece against 281 competitors.

    This weekend is a pilgrimage for those seeking homemade authenticity. Along the way, a personal connection to the source material facilitates a return to an imagined past of small-scale commerce grounded in nature. A new generation of novice spinners, weavers, and knitters are embracing the durable over the disposable. The economic fragility of the small family farm is tempered by supporting this unique chain of production, methods passed down from breeder to artisan to consumer.

    “Our shoppers are loyal and plan for it all year long,” Heidi reports with appreciation.

    On a crisp fall day, home crafters and podcasters gather on The Hill, wearing their most colorful creations to share tales of pattern, color, and construction with like-minded enthusiasts. The shepherds will also pass the winter and spring caring for their flocks, keeping the knowledge of small-scale wool and fiber farming thriving. Breeders, vendors, and crafters each dream of returning next year to share the results of the coming winter’s task of transforming this year’s knowledge and raw materials into something magical.

    Several woven shawls laid out on a table, with red, yellow, blue, and pink award ribbons.
    A proud display of finished shawls
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Chandler Zausner is a former multimedia intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who holds a master’s of visual anthropology from the University of Southern California. He is a qualitative ethnographer and multimedia documentarian trained at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. As a cultural anthropologist and story collector, he explores emerging and marginalized cultures and spaces of cultural intersection.

    Special thanks to Claire Houlihan, president of the Dutchess County Sheep and Wool Growers Association, for her introductions and guidance.

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