HARRISBURG, Pa. — Like the fibers that float through the air from their just-spun wardrobe, shawl-draped Butler County Pedalers members anxiously floated from spinning wheel to weaver, talking about their love of wool.
One wears a pure cashmere shawl, hand-made. Another sports a very soft, durable shawl made of silk and mohair — all hand-knit from a love of not only raising wool, but also fashioning it into something useful.
To the “fiber junkies”, this is their big event — the 31st Pennsylvania Farm Show Sheep to Shawl Contest held Jan. 13 at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.
“This is where the farm and the city meet,” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russ Redding said, before presenting the top awards.
Proclaimed fifth-place winners for their “huck lace” (lace-patterned) shawl, the happy Pedalers team took home $400 from Kevin Ricker of Harrisburg at the auction following the contest.
Named Lacey (what else?), the newly shorn 2-year-old Romney ewe, owned by Megan Gutekunst of Harrisburg, Pa., provided the material for the Pedalers spinners and weaver.
Gutekunst raises about 20 head of Romney and Jacob sheep as part of the Dauphin County 4-H Sheep Club.
The Butler County Pedalers have been around, in one form or another, for about 30 years, according to spinner Carol Buttignol. They operate from the North Hills area of Pittsburgh. For 27 years, they operated as the Butler County Spinners and Weavers.
The six-member team consists of shearer Gutekunst, and spinners Linda Gross, Fenelton, Pa.; Susan Rex, Apollo, Pa.; and Buttignol, North Hills, Pa.
The team also features weaver Donna Fike, Fenelton, Pa., and carder Marilyn Merbach, Saxonburg, Pa., who worked feverishly to turn the fleece into a shawl in the allotted two-and-a-half hour time period.
When spinning, according to Buttignol, judges “look for consistency.” The yarn must be of good quality. The weaver must work well to “beat” the yarn into a pattern that is “not too tight or too loose,” said the team spinner.
Ultimately, the judges are looking for overall creative design and complexity. The wool is still warm to the touch as it is spun. Newly shorn wool must be spun and woven quickly, because as it cools, the natural fiber oil, lanolin, hardens, makes it harder for the fiber to spin.
After the shawl is completed, it must be washed, because the wool, just shorn off the animal, is often filled with dirt and debris. Afterward, the shawl’s white-on-white, diagonal eight-shaft “huck lace” tightly packed weave pattern will “bloom,” with enough small, precisely positioned holes that it simply turns into a lace-like shawl.
The feminine side
The Pedalers spinning area at the Farm Show event included a display featuring a placard created by Fike. It described how spinning the huck lace transports you back in time to an bygone era “when women owned very little that showed their feminine side.”
Across her shoulders, the hand-woven shawl is so lacy, “so feminine!,” the placard stated.
The responsibilities of taking care of a farm family are huge and take their toll: all day long the woman, from this earlier era, has been busy, “weeding the garden, tending children, and feeding the animals. She knows what hard work is, and yet she can still find a way to show her feminine side.”
The group also looked back to honor the passing of Bonnie Meyers, a longtime weaver. They created a pink shawl, which raised more than $1,000 for breast cancer research.
Born to spin
Many a trained weaver went along for the “show-and-tell” time of the guild, allowing members to learn to improve their craft.
Rex hails from the Loyal Hannon Spinners named after Loyal Hannon Creek from Westmoreland County. She believes she was born to spin and hand-make shawls and other yarn clothing.
“It was something I always knew, that I was always interested in,” Rex said. “I have shown since I was old enough to push the pedal on a sewing machine.”
Rex received her inspiration from a friend at the Highland Games, who was demonstrating spinning one day.
“I was like ‘Wow, people really do do that,'” Rex exclaimed.
Since that time, Rex has become a professional seamstress as well and said she owns “a ton of yarn.”
Rex provided information about the spinning wheels, which, by using a steady finger and a spindle, take the fiber (already processed and colored) and spin it into yarn.
The wheels, said Rex, “all have the same basic things, they all have the same basic parts,” but are made by different manufacturers.
All have a large wheel, a small wheel, bobbin, some kind of belt to make the two wheels go, and some kind of pedal. Fiber can come washed or unwashed, dyed or undyed, and there are many ways to prepare it. The shawl pattern itself presents a challenge, resulting in a unique shawl.
“It’s a unique piece of art,” Rex said.
The Butler County Spinners and Weavers Guild exists to promote the crafts of spinning, weaving, and the multitude of uses for fiber through education and demonstration. All proceeds from the contest are returned to the guild to promote the education and training of members. The guild sponsors local 4-H entries in area farm shows.
The guild, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2007, has competed at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Sheep to Shawl Contest for 28 of the contest’s 31 years.