Fiber Festivals in the New Normal

Getting ready for your first wool festival or weaving conference in a while? Here's what might be different, the same . . . or maybe better.

Anne Merrow Feb 10, 2022 - 7 min read

Fiber Festivals in the New Normal Primary Image

Animal illustration by Laurel Johnson; collage from Pixabay users OpenClipart-Vectors, Peter Linke, and digital designer

I’m packing my bags (and planning my purchases) for my first 2022 fiber festival, Red Alder Fiber Arts Retreat. On Thursday, February 17, I’ll be sitting in a classroom with other spinners for the first time in 2 years. I am excited and very, very curious.

Like most of us, I’m navigating how to stay safe while reconnecting with the people and traditions I’m desperate to have in my life again. Some people can’t wait to dust off their passports, and others are getting their season tickets for theater and sports all lined up. I’m overdue to pet new yarns and fibers, practice the spinner’s/knitter’s/weaver’s handshake, and sit down to spin with anyone who isn’t a character on Netflix.

The Spin Off Autumn Retreat in September 2021 was an intimate fiber event, and some of our participants wept with relief at seeing cherished friends after a long break. SOAR 2022 will have the same close-knit feel (and I can’t wait). Going to a festival as a participant, like I do at Red Alder, I get to choose classes, prep my homework, and pre-shop the marketplace. I’ve been waiting to do this for 2 years!

But what should I expect from a fiber conference in 2022? So much has changed; will it still be the experience I know and love? I checked in with the organizers of Red Alder Fiber Arts Retreat, a mid-sized conference held each February, and the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, one of the nation's largest fiber-focused animal and craft events.


A Festival Organizer's Perspective

Becky Edwards is juggling all the last-minute details that go into putting on Red Alder Fiber Arts Retreat, but she took a few minutes to talk with me about the event, which takes place at the Hotel Murano in Tacoma, Washington on February 17-20. She expects that the event will be smaller and quieter in the past—but that the intimate nature might give some participants more opportunities to enjoy the event. You might be just one of a handful of students with a teacher whose classes usually fill on the first day—or you might be able to pick up a new class at the last minute.

Judith at Red Alder

This year might be a good time to catch a class with popular instructors such as Judith MacKenzie. Photo from Red Alder Fiber Arts Retreat 2020, courtesy of Stafford Dean

“There will be fewer lines for some events,” Becky predicts. She thinks the vibe will be more mellow—just right to “get back into socializing.” In past years, crowd have filled the lobbies and restaurants to socialize late into the evening; this year students might relax in their rooms or head home in the evening.

Though she sounds a little wistful that Red Alder’s enthusiastic community might be subdued this year, Becky also notes that a smaller group allows more space for spreading out in classrooms and common spaces. Those of us who have gotten used to more physical and social distancing will probably welcome a little breathing room.

Planning its 49th event on May 7 & 8, Maryland Sheep & Wool is expecting as busy a show as ever, with a full slate of classes and animal demonstrations. With substantial outdoor grounds, attendees will have space to spread out on in addition to renovated and expanded indoor areas. MDSW usually has as many as 30,000 attendees, and this year they'll have more space to relax in. "We are excited to repurpose the Rabbit Barn as a picnic pavilion, so festival attendees will have a place to sit down and take a break—the #1 item on our wish list from the public!" says Kris Thorne. The fairground renovations have also created space for a Fiber Arts Exploration Zone with demonstrations, competitions, and displays.

The festival is monitoring the public health situation before releasing their final COVID safety precaution, but the organizers are planning for an event as big as ever. "The one thing we don’t have a handle on is the attendance. Higher? Lower? About the same? We don’t have any way to predict, but no matter what happens, we will be ready."

Let's Talk Shopping

Although I have certainly taken advantage of opportunities for online shopping, there is nothing like browsing through a fiber marketplace and choosing new goodies for yourself. Taking a look at the Red Alder marketplace listing, I notice that some of my old favorites might be taking the year off, but there are a handful of new-to-me vendors making their Red Alder debut. Becky mentioned that several vendors are coming from the East Coast, so visitors from the Seattle/Tacoma region will see something new.

Abstract Fiber Knitted Wit

Lori Patterson of Abstract Fiber caught fellow vendor Lorajean of Knitted Wit with an armful of her yarn at Red Alder 2020. Appearances to the contrary, Lorajean will be happy to let you take some home.

In fact, Becky expects the event to have a more local feel overall. I’m coming in from out of state, but for fiber artists in the region, having an excellent mid-sized fiber show nearby might be the perfect way to get out into the fiber world again. Hosted by a core group of dedicated teachers, crafters, and volunteers, independent events like this one nourish a community of fiber enthusiasts.

All vendor spaces at Maryland Sheep & Wool are currently filled, making for a robust shopping experience. And if you're looking for new equipment, the festival expects that their very popular spinning & weaving equipment auction will be busier than ever. "We have made arrangements to have a second auctioneer," says Kris. "The auction committee predicts a high volume of consignments after the two-year hiatus."

Bags Packed, Spirits High

So what am I looking forward to at my first fiber outing? I hope I’ll see some of the new spinners, knitters, weavers, and fiber folk who discovered (or rediscovered) the joys of fiber arts in the last few years. I hope I’ll pick up something in the marketplace from a new vendor who’s taking a big leap forward. I hope I’ll have a conversation with a few of my Seattle friends who have recently fallen hard for spinning again.

“We’re just a really good time,” says Becky. And really, isn’t the time you spend with fiber friends a great time?