The New York State Sheep and Wool Festival Draws Younger Fans

RHINEBECK, N.Y. — Wearing a ruffled bonnet that framed her face, a sweater with poufy bobble-stitched sleeves and an ankle-length skirt with tiers of lace and openwork, Sabrina Brokenborough could have been mistaken for a model at an avant-garde photo shoot taking place at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds on Oct. 15.

Ms. Brokenborough, 23, a production assistant for a swimwear company, crocheted the outfit herself. “I like to pull from a lot of historical drawings, and maybe some imagery from old, folkish fairy-tale books,” she said.

A graduate of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design, Ms. Brokenborough had come to Rhinebeck from her home in Queens to attend the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival, one of the largest fiber arts fairs in the country. With her were two friends who had also studied fashion at Pratt: Lara Darling, 23, and Jasmine Bryant, 22, who paired a yellow crocheted vest embellished with orange flowers with a knit hat and combat boots.

“I just worked on these little flowers on the subway or at the park, and then I joined them together,” said Ms. Bryant, a textile designer in Brooklyn. “There are just endless creative opportunities with knitting,” she added.

The festival started in 1980 as a livestock auction and market hawking fleeces (not the fuzzy outerwear, but the raw material used to make yarn). Over two days last weekend, it drew more than 23,000 people to the bucolic fairgrounds, where the foliage had started to turn red, yellow and orange. Among the seasoned knitters and local 4-H clubs that the event has long attracted was another, newer, contingent: young people dressed in bold knitwear, many of whom made their clothes themselves.

“We definitely have seen a cadre of younger people,” Nena Johnson, the festival’s director, said. “It’s a lot younger than the demographic that people think of when they think of a knitting festival.”

Knitting surged in popularity during pandemic lockdowns in 2020, when many people spent time recreating a J.W. Anderson patchwork knit cardigan that Harry Styles wore for a “Today” show rehearsal that February. “People come to us and say, ‘I learned to knit during the pandemic,’” said Anna Pulvermakher, an owner of Loopy Mango, a contemporary knitting brand that was one of the festival’s more than 240 vendors.

In 2021, knitting gained another public face in Ella Emhoff, the 23-year-old stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris. A month after her stepmother was inaugurated that January, Ms. Emhoff, a knitwear designer, introduced a five-piece collection of funky pieces that helped to further change the perception of knitting as a predominantly grandmotherly craft.

“Right now that’s getting switched completely around,” said Shradha Kochhar, a textile artist, knitwear designer and part-time faculty member at the Parsons School of Design who has gone to the Sheep and Wool Festival.

Vanessa Krebs, 25, attended the event this year with her boyfriend, Aaron McLaughlin, 38, whom she met through a virtual knitting circle during the pandemic. Wearing a green wool balaclava and a patchwork beige shirt she had sewn together herself, Ms. Krebs, a bookseller in Providence, R.I., knitted a couple of rows as she stood in line to buy popcorn.

“It’s just really wonderful to use your hands and be connected to the world,” she said. “Within the younger crowd,” she added, “there is this kind of handmade power where people are learning how important it is to be able to sew or knit or do anything to feel sort of connected and be a little more self-sufficient.”

There were workshops in a barn and in tents at the fairgrounds that taught attendees how to make garments and educated them about the process of turning animal fleeces into yarn.

Teline Tran, 24, traveled from Brooklyn to the event “for fun and art,” but also because it offered a look at how clothes are made more responsibly. Mx. Tran, who works for an art book publisher, wore a secondhand sweater altered by Indigo Tolbert, a friend and the designer of the label 1nd1 (pronounced IND-ee), with a purple skirt from the festival vendor Vilma Mare. “It’s cool to see, like, oh, this comes from an animal. This is what they do to the animal. This is what they do and in their workshop, and this is how it gets to us.”

For some young knitters, the festival’s veteran attendees were just as educational.

“You see so many cool crafters that are so much more experienced or skilled than I am,” said Taylor Gee, a student at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who came with a group of friends. Ms. Gee, 21, and two of her friends wore clothes that she had knit, including a checkered sweater vest, a chunky coral cardigan and a bright green crop top.

Of the pieces she saw, Ms. Gee added, “It’s like, whoa, I want to be able to do that one day.”

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