Being at a fiber festival like Wisconsin Sheep & Wool can be tiring. There’s a lot of standing around on hard concrete floors, and walking from building to barn to the next barn. So it was a relief to be able to sit down and watch the sheep shearing demonstration.
The man giving the demonstration was full of information about everything from the importance of good shears to wearing the right kind of footwear to how to keep the sheep as calm & comfortable as possible during the shearing process.
He got the first sheep out of the pen ready to be shorn, and immediately said, “Oh! I shouldn’t have picked this one! It’s slower, and less impressive for demonstrations.” The sheep he’d chosen had fleece all the way down its legs. Some breeds of sheep don’t grow wool on their legs (or heads, either), and they are easier for the shearers to work with.
(It’s very hard to be dignified if you are a sheep being shorn.)
“Does this position make my neck look fat?”
The second sheep he pulled out of the pen was a different breed, and easier to shear. If you look closely, you can see that the wool is coming off in one blanket, almost, instead of lots of little fluffy pieces. That’s good, especially for handspinning, because it means the shearer knows his business, and the wool will be of even lengths that will be easy to work with. (The wool from a single sheep is called a “fleece,” until you process it & mix it with wool from other sheep.)
By this time, the fleece judging had started in another part of the fairgrounds. This was the part my friend Carol was especially looking forward to. You could practically see her drool as she sat on the very front row to listen to everything the fleece judge said. After judging, the fleeces were going to be auctioned off, and Carol was plotting which ones she wanted to take home. (I had almost no fleece lust. I know what it takes to clean one of those suckers, and I’d just as soon let someone else do the dirty work. Literally.)
I’d seen a fleece judging once before, but this judge was fascinating. Different breeds of sheep produce wool with different qualities, so there were a number of different categories in which shepherds could enter their fleeces. As the judge looked over each fleece, he would talk about its strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not it ran true to breed. Often he’d pick up a lock of the fleece and look it over carefully. Most wool, if you look closely, looks like a tiny crimping iron was used on it, and he’d look to see if the crimp was uniform over the whole fleece.
If a sheep has been sick or stressed during the past year, there will be a weak spot in the lock, and the fibers may break as you try to spin them. To test the strength of each lock, he would hold it up by his ear and snap it tight, listening to the sound. It looks kind of funny, but it’s the best way to see if the lock is strong.
A lot of the fleeces looked like beautiful clouds, and I just wanted to go up to the table and stick my arms down in all that lovely wool!
After the judging came the auction. Carol made out like a bandit, coming home with five fleeces! (I never did get to see the spinning wheel she bought. She’d already buried it in sheep fleeces by the time I got to the car.)
By the time Carol picked up her fleeces, the festival was closed for the day and we needed to leave. We made a detour by the lambing barn, though.
Lambs are usually born in the spring, and September is definitely fall in the northern hemisphere. But the nice people at the University of Wisconsin breed specifically to lamb during the Sheep & Wool festival, so people can see new lambs!
“What are you looking at? Don’t you know it’s time to go home and leave us in peace with our babies?”
I generously offered to drive most of the way home, since it was too dark to knit while someone else drove.
And yes, I did pick up some goodies in the sale barn before we left the festival. Apparently I was having a purple-y kind of day. Sometime soon I will have newly-spun sock yarn!
“Hey, I’m going to Wisconsin Sheep & Wool to pick up a spinning wheel. You guys want to come along?” asked my friend Carol. Silly question! Of course we wanted to come along to one of the biggest sheep & wool festivals in the central US!
So in mid-September four knitting enthusiasts packed up our travel knitting and our water bottles, and headed for Wisconsin. The festival is held in Jefferson, a small town near Madison, WI (a few hours north of Chicago). A sheep & wool festival isn’t just about knitting. It’s about everything related to sheep, including herding, shearing, baby lambs, and (most importantly for Carol & me) spinning wool into yarn!
When we made it through the front gates of the fairgrounds, our first goal was to go through the barns where the vendors were set up. So much brightly colored yarn! So many squishy braids of wool waiting to be spun!
Though many vendors were local, there were also vendors who’d come from across the US to be a part of Wisconsin Sheep & Wool. There were spinning wheels and spindles and buttons and ceramics and finished shawls and pretty knitting notions.
There were even spinning wheels made from PVC pipe!
The aisles in the vending barn were crowded, but if you accidentally bumped into someone it wasn’t usually too bad, because most of us were well-padded by our purchases!
After I’d wandered through the sale barns once (you have to scope things out before you commit to purchases!), I headed out to watch the sheep dog trials.
I’d only seen sheep dog trials in arenas before, so it was fun to see them in a big field. It made photographing the trials a bit challenging, however!
(“You’re not REALLY going to make us go in that pen, are you?”)
While I sat & watched, a man & his border collie came over near the bleachers, and started answering the crowd’s questions about herding dogs and herding trials. It was especially interesting to hear him explain how shepherds use dogs’ natural pack-hunting instincts to train dogs to herd. I knew about the slinking-low-to-the-ground being a hunting thing, but I didn’t realize the dogs bring the sheep back to the shepherd because in the wild they would bring the sheep back to the rest of their pack. It made sense, though!
Still unable to decide what I wanted in the sale barns, I wandered off in search of food. On my way, I found the rug displays.
Who wouldn’t want a wooly hippo wall calendar?
The felting projects in the crafting competition were also fun.
Then it was time to head over to the sheep shearing demonstration!
(To be continued!)
View the PDF: Spring_is_here
Did I mention that PB was selling his house? This was a large four-bedroomed section of a Georgian house which has been inhabited by himself, two of his delightful sons, and occasional tenants. Those of you familiar with Georgian architecture will immediately think “large, beautifully-proportioned rooms”. Those of you who know a particular type of man will think “infinite junk store”.
His house sale was trapped between lawyers, but in the interim one of his sons (tall, good-looking and clean) came to stay with us for a few days. PB immediately thrust him into work, moving interesting and important items from his house to mine (there seems to have been a magic portal at some point on the road where interesting and important items transformed into something quite different).
You may wonder why I was so emphatic about son’s cleanliness. As I mentioned before, the new house has one avocado bathroom. Which contains the single (avocado, obviously) loo that had to service three adults and a teenager. And no shower. So the clean and good-looking son had to maintain his status with frequent baths. I would arrive home to a pleasant fragrance, a waft of steam and a sense of tightly-crossed legs.
The requirement for a second loo increased its importance. You will remember the space under the stairs. Well, a hole was put through its wall. And a new sewer was dug. This is extremely exciting. I am ashamed to admit that it had not occurred to me that a new loo meant a new sewer and another inspection pit and all these other things that take a ridiculous amount of time and all you get out of it is an apparently empty flowerbed. Here is another picture of that space. There is a pipe! A pipe! Coming through the wall! Ready for a loo to be fitted.
The thick line on the wall on the right is a massive slab of insulation. The pipes are going to run along the top of it. There is also insulation on the left-hand side, underneath the plaster, but not so much, because it’s not semi subterranean.
You can see the full glory of the insulation in this photo. It’s not just insulation. It’s also stairs. Real stairs that you can stand on. And a newly built wooden floor. Those reclaimed planks have been reused (one of them – I’m not saying which one – is in fact a piece of skirting board. It’s OK. It’s on a solid concrete floor). The stairtreads themselves were taken from the old staircase cum ladder. You will also recognise that familiar orange wire of an extension lead running up the wall. Yes, we haven’t quite got as far as lighting.
As proof that gods do play dice (or if they don’t, they have an exquisite sense of retribution), his moving date was the day before the party (it should not have been, but it was). A day on which he was also fixing someone’s boiler and my daughter had a day off school. I was not prepared to sacrifice the planned day with my daughter cooking party food and clearing boxes out of the sitting-room to pack boxes in his house while he repaired boilers.
To do the man credit, he was sitting up the night before, installing stuff in the space below the stairs. A space I now feel that we can honour with the name “loo”. Look. It has vital porcelain equipment. It has a radiator. It even has a roll of loo paper. The more acute among you, gentle readers, will have spotted that to take this photograph, I must have been standing outside the loo. Yes. It doesn’t actually have a front wall. Or a door. There is of course a door between you and the rest of the house (the one with the cat hole in it), but I did feel that guests at the house-warming might require a little more privacy than that. And possibly (given that the party was going to be an evening event) a light. I knew that we could illuminate the loo tastefully with candles in jars, but the stairs would be rather more difficult. Torches handed out at the door perhaps? One of those stick on LED things? Hanging lanterns? We would cope. Somehow.
While he went off to pack up his house and mend a boiler, I started clearing the sitting room. It is really amazing about the transformative powers of cardboard boxes. You put in a standard quantity of delightful treasured items. You take out, a proportion of total rubbish that you cannot understand why you didn’t throw away years ago; a proportion of useful items that look a bit tatty and a proportion of treasured objects that have been irretrievably damaged and must be thrown away. If you’re very fortunate, there will be one item in each box that you are very very pleased to see again and hurriedly find a space for. The only exception to this rule is boxes of books. It’s like coffee. The amount of books that come out of a box bears no relation to the amount that went in and is in inverse proportion to the shelf space available.
I also got the house ready for the party. Here is a beautiful piece of cardboard that I have cut to fill up the hole in the floor where the hall tiles have been removed and not yet replaced.
While my daughter and I tested the quality of our new Italian oven (remember the oven) and beat up dips and taste-tested cheesy biscuits, PB packed the last remnants of his house up, and discovered all the items that his sons had left idly in the hall, the back bedroom, the front bedroom, the sitting room, the hall and the cellar. He arrived back, discarded his loaded van (so abruptly that his son’s bike was left on the roofrack for three days) then converted himself into SuperBuilder. This involves a costume consisting of a pair of sturdy trousers with knee-pads and multiple pockets and a paint-spattered shirt. SuperBuilder may be seen swinging around on lengths of dangling flex, aiming drilldrivers at escaping screws. He works without food with the aid of a plasterer’s lamp and an infinite supply of extension cables and power tools.
He sawed, he drilled, he hammered, he built. And lo, just before the party, we had a loo that you would be proud (or, at least, willing) to use.
There is a door. It may be rather narrower than our initial plan, but that was merely due to the washbasin being slightly more extravagant than our original ideas. There is a wall. There is a door handle. There is even a lock. And if that was not adequate, observe the fabulous light quality in the stairwell. It is coming from an actual light. With a shade. Carefully chosen (smother your laughter please) to co-ordinate with the tall rectangular shape of the space.
We have lift off. We have house-warming. We have perfectionist builder being concerned about the quality of his floor joists due to the number of people standing on them. (They did nobly.) And just to give you a full flavour of the party, I will give you a close-up of the door. The careful writing that notifies the casual visitor to its function (comments that it says “Zoo” will be treated with the contempt they deserve). This was created with quick-drying nail polish after PB was concerned about the clothes of visitors brushing against anything less durable. Note the subtle, distressed finish; a texture created from the ripping off of plywood and fake wood panels from the original pantry door. I believe that it gives off a sophisticated design ambience of a little French estaminet. I’d better believe this. I think we will be living like this for some time to come.
After my last post, Robin asked me “how did you happen to choose that instrument? I would have said it’s notorious for being a ratbag to play. Why did this particular challenge appeal to you?”
I’ve always enjoyed the sound of the french horn*, but I didn’t start out life as a horn player. Like most of my early musical decisions, this involved my older brother. He was one of my heros growing up**. Anything he did, I wanted to do too. When he decided he was going to learn how to play the trumpet in elementary school, I decided I would be just like him. So four years later, when it was my turn to pick an instrument and join the band, I joyously took my brother’s old trumpet (which was about as big as I was at the time) to the first day of band.
Fast forward another four years. It’s Christmas break, and my siblings and I are just dinking around and talking about random stuff. Out of the blue my brother says, “Midget, you should learn how to play the french horn. That would be cool.” So I went to my band director and asked for a horn. He gave me a horn and a fingering chart and sent me home to figure it out. It honestly never occurred to me that it might be a ratbag to play, or that it was considered a challenging instrument. My brother thought it was cool, so I did it. Simple as that.
And as lucky as that. After teaching myself how to play the horn, I auditioned for and made it into the top symphony orchestra at my high school, and discovered that I had a lot more natural talent as a horn player than a trumpet player.*** It was really fun to suddenly be good at something––I was an adequate trumpet player, nothing special, and while I probably could have worked hard enough to be better than I was, I never really put in the time. By the time that initial flush of talent had worn off and I realized that the horn could be really stupidly hard****, it had already sunk its fangs into me and had no intention of ever letting go.
And like most creative outlets, I have a love-hate relationship with playing my horn. Some days, when you’re limber and focused and everything lines up right, it can be a transcendent experience. But getting the most out of any instrument requires dedication and passion and precision, and there are some days when you’re gray and crumbly and feeling like soggy toast and it’s just one thing too much to play that stupid slur that always cracks one more time. But you keep at it, because it is worth doing even if it sucks sometimes. Music changes lives. Sometimes it’s the music itself, sometimes the making of the music, and sometimes it’s the people you meet along the way.***** But it is powerful and wonderful, even if you’re an amateur horn player who took a blind leap into it because her older brother thought it was cool.
And speaking of blind leaps….
The one thing I droolingly envy about woodwind players† is that when they want to shoot up into the stratosphere of their range, they just press a button. They have an octave key. You poke it and boom, you’ve hit the International Space Station. When I want to go dink around in my high range, I have to do it with my FACE. With an exquisitely controlled raspberry, for goodness sake (because that high up in the harmonic series fingerings are an ephemeral formality and the only reason you bother with them at all is because pressing down a particular button for a particular note helps you correlate what your face is supposed to be doing). I would kill for an octave key.
But no. I am stuck with my face and my raspberries and the lurking fear that every high note I play is going to squawk like a dying duck.
The one thing that helps with the squawking is commitment. It’s kind of like jumping off a cliff. If you hesitate at the last moment, you crash and burn and hit all the rocks on the way down. If you commit to the leap into space, you’re a lot more likely to survive. Or to hit the note you’re aiming for. The bad thing about this is that it’s a lot easier to do if you use lots of air, which pretty much translates to “play loudly”. If you have to come in quietly on a high note††….I’ll bring flowers to your funeral.
However. If that committed leap into space actually works, it’s pretty great. And when you get it really really right and nail that sucker to the wall, life feels pretty amazing.†††
*This is the song that taught me to love the horn: Jupiter, the Bringer of Jolity from The Planets by Gustav Holst (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nz0b4STz1lo) It’s been my favorite song on earth since the fourth grade, and every time I get to hear it live it makes me cry.
**He is still super awesome, but the hero-worship has died down a bit since we’ve gotten older.
***This was due to personality, the physical conformation of my jaw and lips, and the simple fact that being a former-trumpet-turned-horn player gave me an amazing high range for a while. Since most of the posturing and jockeying for status trumpet players do revolves around how high and fast you can play, I felt like pretty hot stuff for an eeny weeny^ high school student.
^My friends used the top of my head as an arm rest every day while walking to lunch. I attribute my body type to my Danish fore-bearers–short and sturdy.
****I have caromed off of every problem any horn player is likely to have, including having bits of my horn FALL OFF right before a lesson. Send me the problem kids, ’cause I have spades of personal experience in fixing stuff.
*****Have I mentioned that I met my husband in marching band? Speaking of changing lives….
† or strings, or pianists or other percussionists or pretty much anything except vocalists, who suffer from similar problems
††During one band rehearsal we were sightreading a piece which required the first horn to come in on a high A very quietly and hold it for 4 or 5 slow measures. When the note was over, she put her horn down and yelled “Oh my GOSH!” with great feeling. The rest of the horn section felt like that was a very appropriate response. Also that the composer should probably be burnt at the stake^.
^I love John Williams. He writes great music. I also want to kill him on a fairly regular basis when playing the insanity he writes for the horn section (“Why yes, let’s have the low horns hit a high A at the end of a 10 minute piece! That’s a great idea!” Please go die.)
†††There was one concert in which we played a song (American Overture for Band, if anyone’s interested [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esh1gypV_8M]) that required the horns to do lots of high notes and octave jumps, and the entire horn section rocked that performance. I walked around in an euphoric haze for two solid days.