Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hot Fun in the Summertime: Lambtown U.S.A.

The 21st annual Dixon Lambtown U.S.A. festival came around again this weekend. Lambtown originally started in the mid-1980s as a way for the small Central Valley town of Dixon to celebrate their their links to lamb and sheep production, and to draw people to the town best known for a 5-day country fair in early May (the Dixon May Fair). Dixon was one of the centers of California lamb (as in "leg of") production during most of the 20th century, with two large meat-packing plants providing most of the town's non-farming employment. Dixon needs all the help it can get in the summer: the town is located in the "agriculturally-oriented" eastern part of Solano County, and July there is both incredibly hot (around 100 degrees) and humid. The festival, famous for its lamb cook-off, mutton-busting, and sheep shearing competition, began to change about seven years ago with the addition of a wool show and fiber festival, and is now Northern California's mid-summer fiber festival.

This year's festival came about in spite of the trials and tribulations that only small town politics can cause. The festival, depending on who you talk to, has been the victim of poor attendance, poor publicity, high prices for renting the festival site, lack of volunteers, lack of corporate sponsors, or a combination of issues and problems. The festival was moved from the Dixon May Fair Grounds, up the street to the smaller, but much nicer, Hall Park between the Dixon City Hall and the Senior Center. The festival was cut from two days to one, with the resulting logistical headaches caused by cramming two days worth of fiber classes and competitions into one. The livestock-related events (which are the big draw, according to some of the local papers) such as mutton-busting, competitive sheep shearing, and sheep dog trials, had to be cancelled.

Note to the powers-that-be at the Dixon May Fair Grounds: I heard how much you wanted ($,$$$/day) to rent your facilities. You can rent the entire Solano County Fairgrounds--including the horseracing track--for less.

We (I "dragged" my friend Betsy along with me) got down there early on Saturday morning, and started off the day by checking out the forty or so fiber vendors. Alpacas seem to be the current favorite livestock "pet," and most of the vendors had alpaca fleece, alpaca roving, alpaca yarn, and items made from alpaca for sale; one vendor even had a very cute Suri alpaca (but I don't think he was for sale). Instead, his owner had taught him a few very cute "stupid alpaca tricks," and had him performing for treats (alpaca pellets). This fair, I was smart: I came armed with a list, and pretty much stuck to it. I found a grist control card to help me continue to work on consistency, got a new multi-hole diz for pulling sliver off the combs, and a Weavette for doing up samples, as they seem to be required more and more for skein competitions. I admired all the alpaca, but didn't buy any; I already have a pile of millspun alpaca to knit/crochet, some alpaca to spin, and too much fiber already. Anyway, I was waiting to pick up my fleeces from Black Sheep, and find another fleece.

Eventually, we found our way over to the Senior Center, where the Skeins & Textiles competition was on display. Much to my delight, there was a blue, first-place ribbon on the Monmouth Cap, and a red, second-place ribbon on the skein of SoySilk I swore and sweated over. The 3-ply Gotland I rushed to finish for this fair didn't place, but I'm not surprised--it's my first attempt at 3-plying off 3 bobbins, and it's difficult to control the tension properly.

After a leisurely survey of the entire fair, we went back to the car, retrieved our wheels, and set up camp under a shady tree for an afternoon of spinning. So many people came by to watch and ask questions I felt like I was doing an impromptu demo of spinning techniques, but it was fun. Eventually, we moved closer to see the sheep shearing demonstration, and ended up with perfect seats for the National Spinning Competition. This competition is enough to test the mettle of the best spinner, as it requires the winning spinner to be good at lots of different things: spinning consistently, plying, designing novelty yarns on the fly, spinning blindfolded, and spinning in rubber dish gloves. The prize for the winner was a nice reward for all this work: a Kromski Sonata spinning wheel.

There was a wool show and sale that, after Black Sheep, seemed small (about 60 fleeces, including mohair and alpaca), but most of the local woolgrowers were well represented. The Grand Champion fleece was a luscious white Merino, while the other top fleeces were a yummy dark charcoal Halfblood and a lustrous Romney x Coopworth. The logistics of the move and shortening the fair may have intruded on the wool show and sale, as the tent where the wool show was going on was used for the National Spinning Competition, people couldn't easily get to the fleeces to examine and purchase them. Also, for some reason, most of the fleeces didn't have prices on them, and it was difficult to transact a sale, as the fleeces didn't have the growers' names on them. Fortunately, I "lucked out" in several ways: I found a beautiful black Romney that had a reasonable price on it, and was able to find the grower--Ace Vandenack--and give him the cash I had for buying fleece. Mr. Vandenack joked that he didn't really want to sell the fleece and was considering showing it again, then let me keep the first-place ribbon the fleece had won in its class (Natural Colored Wool, 50-54s).

We missed the Spinners Lead, as we weren't sure where it was happening, and both of us had promised to help one of the vendors pack up her booth, so we spent the rest of the fair relaxing, packing, and moving boxes, baskets, bins, bags, and spinning wheels into various cars and trucks. We came home with a back seat full of wool, sunburns, and a renewed appreciation for our craft. Below are a couple of photos of the black Romney fleece, but they don't do it justice: the fleece is really black, and the few brown tips are dark brown, rather than the orange in the photograph. But you can see the wonderful crimp and lock structure.