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By Stephen Burnett
If you use yarn, wool or felt for art or garments, or if you wear any kind of natural clothing, you are a consumer of natural fiber, and you may be interested in a fairly new festival in Lexington.
It’s the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival at Masterson Station Park on Leestown Road, and it’s hosted by the Kentucky Sheep and Wool Producers Association, said Kathy Meyer, a Central Kentucky cattle and sheep farmer and past president of the growing organization. She and festival organizers hope to spin the popularity of fiber festivals into an even bigger festival this year, from Saturday, May 19, to Sunday, May 20.
Tickets are $3; children 12 and younger are free. However, those who want to arrive a day early, on Friday, May 18, to take one of the several available craft workshop classes, will have their festival attendance included in the cost of the class. Those range from $30 to $100, to cover materials and instructor’s fees.
Since 2008, the popularity of fiber festivals has been unfazed by the sluggish economy. “Fiber art, fiber festivals, fiber everything, is the second-most-traded thing on the Internet besides pornography,” Meyer said with a laugh.
“This year we will be hoping to have kind of a grand marketplace,” she continued. “We would expect about 3,000 folks this year, involved or participating, or coming to the festival.”
Many of them may be drawn by a common interest, Meyer said: a hope to regain lost materials of the past, and basic skills that at least one generation has nearly forgotten. “It’s kind of a comfort,” she said. “It makes them feel like they’re a little closer to basics.”
Most people in the United States are two or three generations removed from farm life, she explained. They may recall going to relatives’ farms, but that’s about all; and though they may know where food items come from, they haven’t seen the process firsthand. “Or they get fed a lot of information sometimes that’s not really true, about how all that happens.” That may include the myth that all meats, grains or fibers come from large farm factories, Meyer said. “I don’t really have a factory out here, except for these four-legged creatures walking around.”
At the festival, visitors will be closer to the sources of all those food and clothing products. “The main mission is to bring fiber and local food consumers together with producers,” she said.
Two years ago, the festival started small. “The first year, we only had two main vendor tents, and I think we had a total of sixty-five vendors,” Meyer recalled. “This year, we’ll have, all told, probably a little over a hundred vendors. There are four main vending areas, which includes a livestock area, where there are llamas, alpacas, sheep of course, rabbits, Angora rabbits, and Angora goats … the whole gambit of fiber animal livestock display.”
Food will be available on-site — “plenty of food, and not just hamburgers, hotdogs, and fair food,” Meyer said. Breakfast and lunch items can be found from local food vendors.
Look also for farmers market-style local food offerings, such as lamb, Meyer added. About half of the festival’s total vendors are from the Bluegrass region, with half coming from 15 other states, such as California, Wisconsin and Florida. Among the festival’s sponsors are Kentucky Proud (the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s homegrown products imprint), Sullivan University, Fayette Co. 4-H, Lexington Parks and Recreation, and The Woolery company.
Another sponsor, the University of Kentucky Animal Science Department, is helping to fund a livestock exhibit, new this year for self-guided tours. Another new display will feature in the market area. “Masterson has really updated their facilities,” she said. “I call it state-of-the-art.”
Elsewhere, visitors can see a display of antique tractors. “That kind of entertains folks that aren’t so interested in yarn,” Meyer added.
Those who are interested in yarn, fibers and the animals who produce them, started the festival as a spinoff from the Bluegrass Classic Stockdog Trial in Lexington. That event focused on the dogs who herd sheep, so it also made sense to feature the sheep themselves. Since 1960, that event was held at Walnut Hall Stock Farm, then at the Kentucky Horse Park, until in 1996 it was moved to Masterson Station Park. This year, the stockdog trials will run from May 16 to May 20.
“The two things just kind of go together, and it was a good use of the entire facility instead of just one part,” Meyer said.
Of course, some lambs have a purpose beyond growing up and growing wool. At the festival on Saturday, Sullivan University will sponsor a lamb-cooking contest for students of its culinary program. Four teams of three each will compete, and the winning team will split a $1,000 scholarship. “We have a really good time with that,” Meyer said. Volunteers from Sullivan, the Locust Trace AgriScience School, and the county 4-H club also help at the festival.
“It’s all done pretty much with volunteers — people who have a vested interest in fiber,” she said. “Either they’re consumers or producers.” And more individuals with those interests are out there, Meyer said, beyond the core group of festival vendors and sponsors. “This year, we’re doing a lot more advertising, and hoping to reach a lot more fiber consumers.”
For more information, check out the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival website.
Photo from the Kentucky Sheep and Fiber Festival.