Our Fibershed’s Vibrant Community: One Shepherd’s Perspective

by Martha Polkey, Black Sheep Farm, Luckett’s VA

There is a wealth of activity on the fiber front in the Chesapeake Fibershed, particularly among producers marketing to fiber artisans—spinners, knitters, weavers, and felters. A number of area fiber festivals help connect buyers and sellers, offering classes to new and experienced fiberists, boosting enthusiasm and interactions. Some small mills in the fibershed provide local fiber processing, with a number of others along the East Coast and in the Midwest visiting the festivals to collect fiber for custom processing orders.

Producers with larger flocks for whom wool is a secondary product and who do not produce or market value-added products such as yarn, however, often struggle to get a price for their wool harvest that covers the cost of shearing. They also have diminished options for marketing overall, and for some, collapse of local and state wool pools (where the wool buyer accepts the graded fiber at a fixed price from producers who deliver wool to a central location on a set date), leaving them with no market at all for their wool clip.

And while there is an increasing number of fiber processing mini-mills, the Chesapeake Fibershed has lost a number of its larger mills, due to competition from abroad. This is happening despite growing interest on the part of consumers and some companies in producing U.S.-grown and U.S.-made woolens.

The Chesapeake Fibershed has an important role to play in strengthening the economic value of fiber production in this region.

My commitment to the fibershed derives not only from my own experiences as a Merino sheep breeder but from my decades-long involvement in local, regional, and national shepherds’ organizations, a writer and editor of shepherds’ publications, active participant and volunteer in fiber festivals, a felter, a 4-H volunteer, and coordinator of Virginia’s Make It With Wool competition.

For me raising fiber is a deep connection with the natural world like no other. It has given me a deep appreciation of the cycles of plant and animal on the land on which my white and colored Merino sheep graze, and the ecosystem they and I dwell in.

The local shepherds’ groups I joined beginning 36 years ago connected me with a diverse group of producers who joined together for education, information sharing, and cooperative promotion and marketing that spawned new businesses and collaborative efforts.

That led to my serving on the boards of the Virginia Sheep Industry Board and the Virginia Sheep Producers Association—which were primarily focused on meat production, until January 2020 when the VSPA board added a Wool Council to its subcommittees. This is an important change that can help larger and more remote producers to improve the quality and profitability of their wool.

The Maryland Sheep Breeders Association has had a much stronger structure for supporting fiber producers, with the annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival as the premier East Coast fiber event. Dedicated producers and customers support many parts of the fibershed infrastructure that we hope to document and expand.

Maryland’s festival dominates the spring, but other smaller regional festivals in the summer and autumn (particularly Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Fiber Festival and the Fall Fiber Festival & Sheepdog Trials) and younger festivals elsewhere further promote locally grown and made fiber products.

The national Make It With Wool competition began 70 years ago to promote the use of wool in home sewing and by fashion design students. Each state in the Chesapeake Fibershed offers a competition, with winners advancing to the national contest, and there are opportunities here for encouraging young competitors to create garments from locally produced and processed fiber.

I look forward to the Chesapeake Fibershed’s future work to help weave together all of the parts of the fiber cycle for further growth.

We hope you’ll join us.

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