Behind the Scenes at the Wyoming State Fair: Wild and Wooly at the Wool Show

by Hunter Galluzzo, Wyoming FFA media intern

Want some warm socks? Wool. A nice sweater? Wool? How about a beautiful rug? Wool. Many steps and hands go into the making of every quality wool product. Our members are on the ground floor raising the sheep, that grow the wool, to clothe the Nation. At the Wyoming State Fair, these members take time away from their busy lives to showcase their amazing abilities. However, their greatest reward comes in the satisfaction of knowing they raised a quality product to be enjoyed by many.

At State Fair, there are two main categories of completion: fleece, or raw wool, and wool products. Fleeces are judged based on the weight of the product per animal. This is the wool from an entire sheep, excluding the belly, where wool is often too dirty and too low of quality to utilize. From there the process of ranking fleeces is fairly simple. Heavy fleeces yield more wool. Fleeces with vegetable matter, or foreign materials like paint, weeds, and manure reduce the yield of wool, which is undesirable. Fleeces are ranked in the order of yield in weight, length and soundness, fineness of crimp, and the character and color of the wool.

The other side of the competition is much more involved. Finished wool products range further towards the realm of creativity. Wool is cleaned through a long process of scouring and cleaning wool, carding and combing into long fibers, and skirting, where the lowest grade of wool is removed. The organized and cleaned fibers can then be spun into yarn. This can be done through commercial looms and hand spinning wheels, which are operated by the sheer power of a spinner’s leg.

Yarn is the building block of most projects, so it is paramount to spin quality yarn. To have the most quality yarn, blends of different breeds and species of fiber-bearing animals can be combined. Alpacas, llamas, sheep, and certain rabbits all produce desirable fibers for spinning. In addition, colors can be added to wool naturally or artificially. Certain breeds are naturally darker, and dye can be added to create virtually any color.

Hand spinners of yarn pride themselves in creating uniform strands. To do this, they spend hours practicing feeding their wheels and developing the correct feel for size in their fingers. Artisans prefer to pick their own wool or blends for their spinning projects based on feel and their end destination. There are also different styles of spinning. Perhaps the most common technique is called drawing. The spinner pulls small amounts of fiber to be spun and twisted into yarn. A difficult technique shown beautifully was spinning “Navajo Chain” yarn. This splits the fibers heading to the wheel in three equal groups. A loop is then created and passed over the remaining segments to form an interlocking chain of three strands, resulting with a very strong end yarn.

From there, socks, sweaters, rugs, and so much more can be made. Yarn can be knit, woven, crocheted, and cross-stitched. The possibilities truly are endless. Wool products stand the test of time, in style and durability. The river of praise never stops flowing for the warmth of wool on a cold winter day. This makes the competition fierce when deciding Best-In-Show on fair day.

Classes for spun or finished wool run from early amateur all the way up to professional. They are ranked on their uniformity of yarn, color, durability, and usefulness towards their end project. Afterwards, they are all evaluated and one entry receives the coveted title of Best-In-Show.

Feel empowered to go spin some wool yourself yet? If you do, great. Tutorials on how to start spinning wool are available on YouTube free of charge. We wish you the best of luck chasing your creative potential. Spinning wool isn’t your thing? That’s great too. Taking time to learn about the world around you makes you a much more educated and well-rounded individual. We applaud you for your tenacity. Wool judging might not receive the same attention as the Final Drive in the market steer show ring, but it is as deeply rooted in tradition. From Wyoming’s humble beginnings as a State, we have been looked upon as a premier wool producing partner. We even created a new sheep breed in Laramie to better suit our climate and environment, because being the best requires constant improvement. The Wyoming State Fair wool judging is rooted in tradition, but still remains ever-changing like the crowd around it. One thing is for sure; It is most definitely worth taking time to learn about.

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