HARRISBURG — Inspired by Braille and a love of soft texture, a Franklin County team won the coveted sheep to shawl contest Tuesday night at the 103rd Pennsylvania Farm Show.
Members of Friends Thru Fiber, a long-time competitor in the contest, said they were delighted to win after placing second for many years. For the Love of Ewe, the Cumberland County team, placed fourth out of nine teams.
“This is our 11th year in the contest but the first time we came in first,” said a jubilant Michelle Lushbaugh, Friends Thru Fiber weaver. “We’re ecstatic.”
The competition, now in its 40th year at the Farm Show, 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.
The wild and wooly event on the fifth day of the Farm Show puts the state’s wool industry in the spotlight. Pennsylvania has 96,000 sheep and ranks 14th nationally in wool production, according to the Pennsylvania Sheep and Wool Growers Association.
About 2,000 people filled the Small Arena to watch what sounds like a relatively easy contest. How difficult can it be to shear a sheep, process its fleece, make a shawl and sell it? Very difficult but doable, the nine teams showed.
The competition began when the sheep were brought into the arena. Dale Mylin, shearer for the Fidget Spinners of Lancaster County, carried his team’s 75-pound Delaware Blue sheep. Nine team shearers, armed with muscle and electric shearers, got to work.
Hoyt Emmons of Pennsburg, shearer for the For the Love of Ewe team of Cumberland County, sheared a Romney ewe named Violet. He sat her on her rump and began shearing the heavy wool coat from her belly, then the rest of her.
Emmons, who shears 1,600 sheep annually, ended up with an impressive fleece. When the shearing was done, the shearers led the rather naked-looking sheep back to stalls.
Carders brushed the fluffy piles of wool between two wire brushes to remove foreign matter and make the fibers go in one direction. They gave the soft fiber to the three spinners on each team.
Spinners, using foot-operated spinning wheels, spun the fibers into long strands of yarn and wound that yarn on wooden bobbins. Finally, the bobbins went to the team weaver who ran a wooden shuttle back and forth in the loom, creating the shawl pattern.
Creativity was the name of the game this year. Several teams said their shawls and stand décors were inspired by weather and nature.
The Fidget Spinners wore raincoats and rain hats and put their fleece in an umbrella to carry out their “Singing in The Rain” theme, a nod to one of the wettest years in Midstate history.
For the Love of Ewe looked to the ocean for ideas in making its “Seaside Paradise” shawl. The Butler County Pedalers used “Fun in the Pennsylvania Skies” and the Whorl Friends of Columbia County had “Diamonds in the Sky” as their themes.
Time Warp of Montour County, defending champion and reserve champion this year, found inspiration for its shawl from Reptile Land in Allenwood
Teams worked hard for the 2½ hours, alternating between talking casually as they worked and becoming completely serious and intent. Weavers ran wooden shuttles back and forth with practiced ease across their looms as they created colorful shawls.
Almost before they knew it, the time was almost up. Many team members appeared a little nervous as the clock ticked down. They worked faster, hastily tying on fringes and running the completed shawls to the three judges.
For the Love of Ewe’s team, which began the competition with a prayer, prayed again as they rushed to compete their turquoise, aqua and green shawl with a wavy twill pattern. They handed it in two minutes before the deadline.
“We made it,” weaver Rachel Logue said. “That’s the closest we ever came to the deadline.”
Judges awarded points for shearing, spinning, weaving, shawl, design, speed and team identification.
Special awards went to Friends Thru Fiber, fleece award; For the Love of Ewe, spinners award; Libby Beiler of Time Warp, weaver’s award; Weaving Wabi Sabi of Lancaster County, team’s choice award; and Shetland Circle of Lancaster County, shearer’s award.
Spin City of Adams County finished in third place; Fidget Spinners in fifth place; Weaving Wabi Sabi in sixth place; Whorl Friends of Columbia County in seventh, and Butler County Pedalers in eighth. One team didn’t finish and time and didn’t place.
“We’re happy that Friends Thru Fiber won,” said Michelle Gardos of For the Love of Ewe. “They work hard and are sweet competitors. They made a beautiful shawl tonight.”
Auctioneer Harry Bachman then sold the shawls. The grand champion Friends Thru Fiber shawl sold for $1,550; Time Warp’s second place shawl went for $1,650; Spin City’s for $600 and For the Love of Ewe for $1,050.
In another part of the Farm Show complex, 22 auctioneers from throughout the state competed in the Pennsylvania Auctioneers Auction. Tyler G. Sexton of Camp Hill represented Cumberland County in the event.