HARRISBURG — The January thaw came at a perfect time Wednesday for seven sheep and thousands of visitors at the sheep-to-shawl contest at the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show.
As temperatures climbed to the 40s outside, visitors inside shed their coats. Meanwhile, shearers removed the heavy woolen coats of the sheep so that seven teams, including one from Cumberland County, could turn the fleece into shawls.
The fifth day of the agricultural exposition featured a meatball showdown, speed horse demonstration, antique tractor pull, bid calling contest and more. The Farm Show runs through 5 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free while parking is $15 a vehicle.
By midafternoon, the wild, woolly sheep-to-shawl contest was in the spotlight. A sheep to shawl contest involves a team shearing a sheep, spinning the wool into yarn and using it to make a 22 by 78 inch shawl with five inches of fringe on each end, all in 2½ hours.
Time Warp of Montour County was named grand champion for the 11th year and seventh consecutive year and sold its shawl at auction for $675.
Friends Thru Fiber of Franklin County finished second and sold its shawl for $900 while For the Love of Ewe, Cumberland County’s team, finished third and sold its shawl for $900.
State Agriculture Deputy Cheryl Cook kicked off the contest after shearers did a preliminary removal of fleece from the bellies of the sheep. When Cook told them to begin shearing, they got to work.
Using electric shears, muscle and know-how, they grabbed their sheep, sat them on their rumps and began shearing wool. Soon, the shorn sheep were beside piles of fluffy fleece.
Hoyt Emmons of Pennsburg, who shears for the Cumberland County team, sheared a 2-year-old pregnant Romney ewe named Charlotte. Emmons shears about 2,000 sheep annually in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.
Dan Dailey of Chambersburg, shearer for Friends Thru Fiber of Franklin County, had no problems shearing a Corriedale sheep from the flock of team member Joyce Mellott. Dailey, who has been shearing for 47 years, said the team spends all year planning its sheep-to-shawl project.
As the shorn sheep were led back to their stalls teams got to work. Team members used wire brushes to card or comb the fleece to remove debris and make the fibers go in one direction.
Piles of fluffy fleece were given to the three spinners who sat at their foot-operated spinning wheels and spun the fibers into long strands of yarn. They wound that on wooden bobbins and passed them to the weavers for the next couple hours.
Members of For the Love of Ewe, mostly members of Christian Life Assembly Church in Upper Allen Township, included sisters Rachel Logue, a weaver, and Lisa Logue, a spinner; Michelle Gaydos of Mechanicsburg, a carder, and her daughter, Hannah, who slipped off her shoes to work a spinner; and Dot Helmick of Newberry Township.
For the first hour or so, teams seemed relaxed. But they became more intense as the contest deadline approached. Their pace increased and participants talked less, worked more and looked determined.
The loom of the Loyalhannon Spinners broke when the warp threads separated from the apron end of the loom.
“We had no tension,” said Liza Seiner, weaver. “I had nothing to pull against.” Contest timekeeper Sara Bixler helped her make a repair so tension could be restored.
“That was terribly stressful,” Seiner said. “I thought we were done but after the loom was fixed we kept going. We finished our shawl in two hours and 15 minutes.”
In the final minutes, teams tied fringes on the shawls, checked their shawls and ran them to the four judges before taking a break.
Earlier in the day, prizes were given to winners in the fleece-to-shawl contest, held for youth participants.
Libby Beiler, Time Warp weaver, said her team was honored to take first place. “Competition was tough,” she said. “Every year, teams get more creative and set the bar higher.”