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The winning team for the 2023 Pennsylvania Farm Show sheep-to-shawl competition on Jan. 11, 2023, was Franklin County’s Friends through Fiber team. Team members shown here include: Dan Dailey, shearer; Carolyn Stratton, carder; Michelle Lushbaugh, weaver; and three spinners, Joyce Mellott, Jill Schooley and Julie Shindle. Fourth from left is Pennsylvania Agriculture Deputy Secretary for Market and Economic Development Cheryl Cook.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Two big things happen in the Small Arena during the Wednesday of the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Jan. 11.

Probably the most well-known event in that part of the complex is the annual sheep-to-shawl contest, where teams of six adults start in the afternoon with a live sheep in full fleece, shear the sheep, and turn its wool into a dyed and designed 6-foot-long shawl — in just a few hours.

Many years, there’s an occupant for every one of the arena’s 918 seats, filled with spectators rooting for their favorite teams.

This year there were five adult teams, with many participants being sheep-to-shawl veterans who’ve been competing for decades. Tension filled in the air as the clock ticked down to the starting time. At exactly 3 p.m., clippers whirred into life, the designated sheep shearers did their magic, and within minutes, five wool-less sheep emerged from what had just moments before been four-legged piles of fluffy wool.

The team members attacked their fleeces, carded them to align the fibers, and fed the carded wool to each team’s three spinners. They, in turn, spun the wool into yarn, which went to the teams’ weavers, who shuttled the yarn into a wearable work of art, a shawl.

This year’s winner was Franklin County’s Friends Through Fiber team, whose shawl, themed “sunflower power,” was a powerful design. Members of the winning team included Dan Dailey, Carolyn Stratton, Joyce Mellott, Jill Schooley, Julie Shindle and Michelle Lushbaugh.

The Friends Through Fiber team was also awarded the team’s choice award and the weaver’s award. Their winning shawl fetched $2,700 in the post-event auction.

The other sheep-to-shawl teams were: Twisted Sisters, from Westmoreland County, whose “here’s-the-scoop” shawl design glorified ice cream; Time Warp, from Montour County, whose “victory garden” shawl theme applauded home-grown vegetables; Team Wabi Sabi, of Lancaster County, whose “let’s-go-fly-a-kite” design was an homage to its team founder, the late Tara Kiley-Rothwell; and Fidget Spinners, of Lancaster County, whose shawl depicted their “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park,” theme.

Sheep-to-shawl competitions have long been common in states that have a sizable sheep population. The Pennsylvania contest began 43 years ago. Joanne Evans ran the contest from its beginning until 2021, when she moved out of Pennsylvania. Before she moved, she invited Francie Appleman to take over as the sheep-to-shawl event coordinator.

Appleman and her husband, Wayne, raise sheep, primarily for wool, on their farm in Turbotville, Westmoreland County. Over the years, both have competed in sheep-to-shawl competitions — he as a carder, she as a weaver. This year, as the contest’s organizer, she can no longer compete, but she still raises sheep and still weaves.

Youth Teams Compete, Too

Besides the Sheep-to-Shawl Contest, Appleman also coordinates a youth version of the event, for those aged 18 and under, called the Fleece-to-Shawl Contest. It takes place earlier in the day on Wednesday, Jan. 11, starting at 10 a.m. in the same Small Arena. According to the rules, an adult over 18 may be present with a youth team, but only in an advisory role.

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Fleece to Shawl Contest at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Harrisburg, Jan. 11, 2022.

Appleman’s official sheep-to-shawl day at the Farm Show began Wednesday morning with the young and talented fleece-to-shawl teams gathering. Their contest starts not with a live sheep, but with a fleece already sheared from a sheep elsewhere. Sometimes the fleece comes from a sheep that’s part of a team member’s flock, but most of the fleeces used in the competition are purchased.

The youth teams are allowed three hours to turn their fleece into a shawl, as compared to the two-and-a-half hours allowed for the adult competition.

There’s also a difference, as one would expect, in the finished product, according to Appleman.

“The adults have a lot more finesse,” she said. “Which makes sense, because they have a lot more experience. In fact, some of the adult competitors have actually made careers out of spinning and weaving.”

For the youth event this year, four teams competed, each with five members. Two teams were from Dauphin County, and everybody on these teams also belonged to the Dauphin County 4-H Fiber Arts Club. All the members from the other two teams are students at the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School in Loganton, Clinton County.

Appleman said fiber art contests like this one take a considerable amount of dedication and a good bit of expensive equipment. Looms, especially, can be priced in the thousands of dollars.

“It’s really remarkable that we have these teams,” Appleman said. “As a parent, you look at the expense and the time, and you never know for sure if the child is going to stick with it. But they do. And I’m encouraged by the fact that we have four teams this year, because some years we only have two or three.”

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Fleece to Shawl Contest at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Harrisburg, Jan. 11, 2022.

Another remarkable thing about this year’s competitors, Appleman said, is that they all made the yarn that was used to warp their looms (the “warp” is the vertical thread on the loom, through which the horizontal “weft” yarn is woven to make the shawl). The teams carded the wool, spun it into yarn, dyed it, then put it on their looms. Under the rules, teams can buy yarn with which to warp their looms, but all four teams this year used yarn they made themselves, which produced a 100% handmade product.

In a sheep-to-shawl contest, the wefts are produced during the competition, and they are the color of the sheep from which the fleece is shorn.

Like the adult competitors, the fleece-to-shawl youth contestants spend up to a year designing their shawls and practicing how to produce them. They also practice by weaving a shawl beforehand with the theme they have designed, including its colors.

At this year’s Farm Show competition, Sugar Valley’s Roaring Rubies youth team (named after the sheep that supplied their fleece) went with the shawl theme, “Cottagecore,” which incorporated colors from nature: trees, grasses and flowers.

The Sapphire Spinners youth team, also from Sugar Valley, created a design inspired by “MASH,” a TV series that went off the air in 1983, and included in their shawl colors such as Army green, mustard yellow and terra cotta.

Dauphin County’s Fibering Five youth team focused on a “Little House on the Prairie” theme, capturing the TV show’s prairie colors of green, yellow and pink in its shawl.

For fun, team members dress up to match their shawl’s theme. For instance, the Fibering Five team dressed in old-fashioned clothing styles featured in the “Little House on the Prairie” show, which took place in the 19th-century town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

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Fleece to Shawl Contest at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Harrisburg, Jan. 11, 2022.

Dauphin County’s other youth team, Fiber Frenzy, themed its shawl “Counting Sheep.” Designed to capture the essence of a starry night, the team’s shawl was the only one to reach the judges’ table in just under the three-hour time limit.

In a hurried finish, Fiber Frenzy’s weaver, Alexandria Neff, ripped the team’s finished shawl from her loom and had it on the judges’ table with less than five minutes to spare. The warp used to make the shawl was all hand-carded and spun by team members and dyed in shades of dark blues and purples, with splashes of white. The white colors were accomplished by wrapping rubber bands around parts of the white threads as they went into the dark dye. The fleece for the weft came from a Romney ewe. The naturally dark gray of the Romney wool lent a somber note of night to the blues and purples, with the bright white “stars” shining through.

While there’s no fame in not finishing, there’s no blame and no shame in stopping just shy of the mark, according to Appleman. It’s a team event and the team that doesn’t win has gained great experience and the knowledge that goes with mastering a complicated craft.

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Fleece to Shawl Contest at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, Harrisburg, Jan. 11, 2022.

At the final bell, that line of reasoning didn’t hold much weight for Haylee Coble, Fibering Five’s weaver. At the end of the competition, she was distraught, elbows on her loom, covering her face with her hands. She was immediately surrounded by a cluster of hugs, back rubs and encouraging words of comfort.

By the time Appleman presented Coble with the outstanding weaver award, she was all smiles. It was not just a sympathetic consolation award. Appleman said, “On that day, she was simply the best weaver in the state. And that is no small feat.”

The other fleece-to-shawl awards included the team choice award, voted on by all the competitors, and presented to the shawl by Fiber Frenzy. Their Counting Sheep shawl was auctioned later in the day for $1,300.

The best fleece award went to Roaring Rubies for their Corriedale fleece.

The spinners award was given to the three Fibering Five spinners: Cassie O’Shell, Daphne Lynn and Abigail Bell.