What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

I’m cross-posting this lively interview to both Craftlands and What I Know About. You see, I’ll soon be making my second pilgrimage to the Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck NY for the knitterati-packed New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, and rather than telling you what I know about it, I asked Kay Gardiner — mover and shaker, knower of things — to give us her much more informed perspective on how it has come to be the most famous fiber festival in the US, as well as her tips for how to get the most out of the event. I’m already wishing I’d had this advice before going my first time!*

You can find Kay’s wit and wisdom on the regular at Mason-Dixon Knitting and on Instagram @kaygardiner.

. .

How long have you been attending the NY Sheep and Wool Festival, aka “Rhinebeck”? What was it like in your earlier years?

I tried to figure out the correct factual answer to this question, but the archives of Mason-Dixon Knitting did not yield it up. The oldest Rhinebeck post I could find was in 2007, which was certainly not my first or even second Rhinebeck. I think my first Rhinebeck must have been 2004 or 2005. I remember my husband dropping me off with my daughter, who was a little girl then (wearing a Rowan Denim pullover that was very long on her), and that I was surprised and a little worried that a few people recognized her from the blog. The power of the Internet! Husband (who had a shockingly low interest in sheep) gave us something like a two-hour time limit before picking us up again, but I was hooked. I have missed very few Rhinebecks since that first one, and I’ve generally stayed two days instead of two hours.

What was it like? The early 2000s were the heyday of knitting blogs, which were the first blossoming of the rich, deep and wide Internet knitting community that we know today. Rhinebeck, a country livestock show, was inundated with roving packs of very excited knitters from all over the region and country. People would run into each other and start jumping up and down and squealing when they recognized each other. Many virtual connections became real-life friendships on the Dutchess County Fairgrounds.

How would you describe the difference between Rhinebeck then and now? Better/worse? Anything you miss or feel has been lost along the way?

The crowds seem to grow every year, but otherwise the fair retains its character as a sheep-centered event, despite the knitters thronging the yarn stalls. The fleece sale thrives, farmers and their kids still show their sheep, and the sheepdog trials are as lively as ever. We continue to mourn the tragic loss of the chicken pot pie stand, but we still have the Artichokes French and the apple cider donuts. I miss the Culinary Institute of America (based in nearby Hyde Park, New York) doing a big food tent. I can’t remember if that was for just a year or for several, or if I just dreamed it.

One fun event that did not exist for my early Rhinebecks is the Indie Untangled Rhinebeck Trunk Show, of which Mason-Dixon Knitting is a proud sponsor. Now in its fourth year, the Trunk Show takes place on Friday evening from 4-8 at the Best Western in Kingston, New York. Independent yarnmakers and dyers, from all over, are gathered in one place to discover.

Of all the fiber festivals all over the country, how did this one come to be the Mecca for the entire knitting world? Do you have a theory?

Timing is everything, and the third weekend in October is Peak Autumn in the Hudson River Valley. The show hits the exact moment when one most wants to be outdoors, breathing country air, looking at animals and wool, buying yarn, and checking out spinning wheels and looms. Winter lies just ahead, and we have to eat a bunch of kettle corn and get ready to hunker down for the duration.

I cannot remember a single Rhinebeck that was not beautiful, with the trees glowing orange. (OK, it may have been blustery and overcast in 2009.) On a few occasions the weather has been too warm for sweaters, but the knitters still manage to pile on the handknits. One of my lifetime goals is to knit a special-purpose Rhinebeck Sweater, as many knitters do (they’re frantically trying to finish them right this minute), but that would require planning ahead.

Do you remember that time I had a sweater photo contest? My way of living vicariously that year. For those who might be contemplating their first Rhinebeck visit, what’s your advice?

I’ve given this some thought! Rhinebeck is a whirl of sensory and social stimulation, and it’s also seven-hour days on your feet, exposed to the elements. Here are my tips for having a good time.

1. Make a plan. Before you get there, spend a little time with the new-and-improved vendor list. Jot down the sellers you absolutely must see, and see them first. Or, do as I do, and just walk through the barns in order, ready to be surprised and amazed by what you find. Popular vendors get hit hard very early, so if there is a yarn that you will be disappointed not to take home, get to that booth right at the start of the day.

2. Keep your strength up. Carry a bottle of water and some energy bars so you don’t get woozy. I’m not kidding! When you’re in the Rhinebeck Zone, two or three hours can go by without your noticing it until you need to lie down on the bleachers at the dog trials and look up at the sky. The Artichoke French and cider donuts lines are very long, and they are not going to get any shorter over the course of the day, so just get in line and enjoy the experience. You are going to meet lots of people and see lots of handknits while you wait. I like to save the kettle corn for last, and pick up a big bag of it on my way out of the fairgrounds, “for the kids.”

3. Take care of your feet. This is no time to break in a pair of new shoes, or for sandals of any description. The fairgrounds are dusty and uneven when dry, and sloppy when wet. Ideally you want to be wearing old Frye boots, Blundstones or the like. If it’s been raining, you are going to want full-on rubber boots, like the farmer in Babe wore.

4. Handknits: more is more. Rhinebeck is a feast of knitwear. Wear as many handknits as you can fit, visibly, on your body. Compliment the beautiful handknits you see passing by — that’s why people are wearing them!

5. Buy stuff. Don’t get so overwhelmed by the amazing range of goods on offer that you forget to buy a few skeins of something beautiful. Rhinebeck is an opportunity to support people who have dedicated their lives to making beautiful, authentic yarns, tools and supplies for us. We didn’t always have so many choices, and we have them now because these craftspeople are able to make a living doing what they love, and what we love.

6. Make friends. Stop by the book barn (in building B, not far from the picnic tables) to meet authors who will be more than happy to sign their books. Ann and I will be there on both Saturday and Sunday from 11-2, hoping to say hi to as many people as we can.

7. Parties! On Saturday night, there are two fun events that I know of. One is the first-ever Mason-Dixon Knitting Rhinebeck Pie Party, in Rhinebeck, New York. It’s free; for details and to RSVP, go here. Stop by for a few minutes, or stay a while, have a cup of hot cider and a slice of pie from a great local baker. We’ll be there from 5-8.

Also on Saturday night, from 6-9 across the river in Kingston, is Jill Draper’s legendary open studio night, a great event of food and people and an incredible selection of her beautiful yarns for sale. Here’s her Eventbrite to RSVP.

And who are you especially keen to spot in the crowd this year?

You, of course!

. . .

I did not pay her to say that. Thank you, Kay! See you there—

As fun as Rhinebeck is, it’s important to note that there are amazing fiber festivals all over this country. If you’re not familiar with your own state’s (or region’s) offerings, definitely Google it. And please share your favorites in the comments below! Fringe Supply Co. will have a presence in the Harrisville Designs booth at Rhinebeck this year, and that same weekend we’ll have our own booth at our favorite Tennessee festival, Fiber in the ‘Boro. Mark your calendars!


*Please forgive me for reusing the images from my 2015 Rhinebeck recap here — the rest of my photos from that trip were all lost! I’ll take new ones this year.

PREVIOUSLY in What I Know About: Natural indigo (with Kristine Vejar)
PREVIOUSLY in Craftlands: My week in the Craftlands

51 thoughts on “What I Know About: Rhinebeck (with Kay Gardiner)

  1. I will probably never get to Rhinebeck, more’s the pity, and for various reasons neither will a lot of people. However while Rhinebeck gets all the glory, knitters and other fiber obsessed people should be aware that there are lots of similar fiber events around the country, going on from spring through fall, and the more they are supported, the better they will become.

      • Thank you for asking! Here In Minnesota, our major festival is Shepherds Harvest which is always Mothers Day Weekend, the full on event with fiber, equipment, and all the sheep and llamas, but much more local: most vendors come from this state or the adjacent ones. It is preceded by Yarnover, an event put on the Minnesota Knitters Guild about 3 weeks earlier: classes and a market.

        This weekend, my daughter and I are going on something called “the North Star Farm Tour”: 11, more or less, local fiber farms opening themselves to the public for demos and shopping and greeting of the animals, at the farms themselves. (This outing is my birthday present). Distance gets in the way of doing them all, we are aiming for 5, optimistically. This is a new one, to me at least. I love these sorts of events because while I may miss out on the fancy names and celebrity knitters, it is the essence of shopping local, knowing your supplier on the closest possible level, all the things you (and I) hold close.

        I am privileged to live in a state with a very vibrant fiber community, but many communities have similar events, but they are very homegrown, and often not very good at marketing themselves. But it is so very worth seeking out!

  2. Dang it! Posted early. Glad to read this post because I have zero idea what to expect and also because I love reading MDK writing!

  3. I may never get to Rhinebeck. It’s a long trip from Arizona! However, we have a small, but lively, wool festival in Flagstaff every June.
    I was able to get to Black Sheep Gathering, for the first time, this year. (My daughter lives in Portland.) I certainly plan to go back!
    Who knows, maybe Rhinebeck will happen for me someday!

  4. This will be my second trip. Taking the Navajo weaving class and cannot wait. So glad Fringe products will be available at the Harrisville booth! I took home Sawkill yarn based on your 2015 recap and have been dreaming of grabbing more since. Went to the NJ Sheep & Wool about two weeks ago which was great.

  5. I’m planning my second trip to Rhinebeck — thanks for the tip on Jill Draper’s event!! I’d been hoping to snag more of her yarn!

  6. Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is in early May and is also fabulous! Luckily I live in between the two festivals!

      • It’s amazing, overwhelming, and I only get to go every few years because of a long standing conflicting event. It does feel a little odd to be buying wool in early May, but I can live with that. ;)

    • I like the Maryland Sheep and Wool as well. There is always some one where I live in PA chartering a bus for Knitters so no driving hassles and no overnight accommodation costs. Bus costs about $50 per person and it is a fun ride.

  7. Don’t forget the Virginia Sheep and Wool Festival this weekend, October 7-8, at the Montpelier Estate. Weather is going to be cool and beautiful!

  8. I haven’t made it to Rhinebeck yet but I really do love Maryland Sheep and Wool. I had to get used to people coming up to me and touching my knitting LOL ‘oh what pattern is this?!” and once you get over that it’s fun. And definitely see the vendors you want to see first!

  9. Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival this weekend, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. Tunbridge, Vermont. Google it! We have foliage too!

    • I was going to mention this one as well :) It’s a lovely fair – small enough to enjoy at a comfortable pace, and big enough to draw a range of vendors, classes, AND the Cashmere Goat show!
      Also: maple sugar cotton candy. Hey, it’s only once a year.

  10. I really like Maryland Sheep & Wool! For me, it’s much more doable. It’s drivable & there are many more hotels. I love knitting retreats more than festivals. Of course it’s all about what you’re looking for!

  11. Rhinebeck is on my dream list (along with Shetland Wool Week, and about a million others) but this weekend I am contenting myself with Knit City here in Vancouver. There is a great lineup of classes and lectures, which always sell out in a snap, and a fantastic marketplace with free demos and talks; it feels like a red carpet with the whole “who are you wearing?” aspect, but everyone made these things themselves, and we are all name-dropping knitting designers and pattern names.

  12. I just went to Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival this past weekend outside Portland, have gone every year for at least the last 3. This year my tiny 3.5 year old side-kick was with me so the experience was more “petting zoo” and less yarn/fiber perusal. I did convince her to wear the sweater I knit her this year out of yarn I’d snagged at the festival last year and going to that same booth with her in the sweater and saying “hey look–I made this sweater from your yarn and we both love it!” (a rarity these days) was really satisfying. Maybe it was unrelated, but the evening after we went I was knitting next to her while we watched some Charlie Brown and she said “Hey! I need something to do! I want to knit like mom–can you teach me right now?”

  13. I’ve been going to Rhinebeck for years and this ‘what to expect’ article is spot on! Rhinebeck is so fun. I’m getting so excited now and am looking forward to spotting the handknits and new faces at the festival :)

  14. I went to Rhinebeck last year for the first time, and it was amazing. I’m not going this year, but hopefully in 2018. A fun Midwest experience is Wisconsin Sheep and Wool in Jefferson, WI the weekend after Labor Day. Great vendors, both local and national, as well as sheep dog trials, shearing demonstrations and all the rest. No Llama Leap, though, sadly.

    • I went to WI Sheep and a Wool this year for the first time with my mom! We both loved it and can’t wait for next year.

  15. A friend took a train from DC up to Rhinebeck and it sounded like a lovely trip, so I’m working to do that from MD one fall. We have the fabulous MD Sheep and Wool, but a fall fiber fest sounds perfect.

  16. We are so lucky to have such richness when it comes to festivals. When I was writing my book, Fiber Gathering, I got to attend something like 12 festivals and events in a year. It helped me see how diverse, interesting, and deep our passion can be… And while Rhinebeck is a lovely event, I think the best one may be the one you attend, close to wherever you live…and some are less expensive to get to, less crowded, or have a different emphasis, depending on your region. (Taos, New Mexico is a spectacular and different fiber landscape than NY State!)

    In the spirit of Slow Fashion, perhaps the festival that is close to you is the best option, or might be the most sustainable choice.

  17. I hope to meet you someday at OFFF (Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival) or Madrona. And I hope to get to Black Sheep, too! I heard that it’s moving from Eugene to Albany, OR next year. A smidge closer to Portland.

    I had the pleasure of being the knitting judge at OFFF last weekend. Such beautiful work; it was hard to not give ribbons to everyone. But the knitting winner took the grand prize (I defended it well), over the crochet and felting.

    Still working on my blog post…

    • I discovered these last year and had so much fun! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend either one this year, but I definitely want to get back to both. I’ll have to look into the movement of Black Sheep to Albany, I wonder why it’s moving. Works out for me though, I’ll be moving from Eugene to Albany next year too!

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  20. One aspect of the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is that, well, there is a significant component of sex, ovine mostly. With over 30 breeds of often rare sheep JUDGED by experts, breeders can arrange dates between their animals but keeping them pure blood. The judging helps identify traits in an animal a breeder would NOT want in a pairing.
    I was minding my own business in a pre festival class when a man found his way into our classroom, distraught. My trailer is stuck in the mud. I’ve driven from California with 15 ewes and now I’m stuck. (I found him a tractor.) Those rare sheep were all closely related. He drove to have them bred by another ram of their breed but not a close relative. So the Maryland show is significant for sheep breed conservancy. Wink. Wink. Knitters meet each other there too.

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