Surprises on San Juan Island

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This is the beginning of a series of blogs telling you more about things that you may not know about San Juan Island. This week’s topic is the first Sheep to Shawl that was held in our county. This event still goes on at the fair yearly. A Sheep to shawl is a contest where teams compete against each other in creating a loom-woven, spun wool shawl. It starts with a sheep and a team which consists of spinners, carders, a weaver, and (in earlier times) a sheep shearer. These teams have four hours to come up with a finished product which meets size regulations and is then judged (usually at a county fair) by a textiles judge.

If you didn’t know it already, there can be fierce competition between the islands. Sports games, contests, and all sorts of other events pit the people against islanders on other islands. It is all in good fun, but it does add lots of motivation and energy to any event. The gymnasiums are packed full of screaming fans for the inter-island games where a victory can have more satisfaction for the winners than the district championship itself. So, it was not unexpected at the first Sheep to Shawl that each separate island had a team.

I do not know who got the idea for a Sheep to Shawl contest, but I know the person responsible on San Juan Island. His name was Burrell Osborne. He was the County Extension Agent. As I remember him he was a bit of a curmudgeon with a great sense of humor and a lovely Irish tenor voice. He really enjoyed the 4-H kids. He also came up with the idea of chicken races at the county fair, from the center to the railing of the horse arena…and he himself would often cheat by entering a rabbit or a duck.

During the late seventies spinning wool was a very popular activity for island women. Sheep have been raised on this island since the early days of the Hudson Bay Company. When I moved here in the late seventies, it was only natural to order up a handmade spinning wheel from Lois Ricks, who made them herself. (She did not spin but her husband did.) We would gather weekly with our wool and wheels to chat and spin in church basements. (Later, this evolved into a textile group which got into fancy things like natural dyes and weaving patterns.) Back in the days of the first sheep to shawl, most of us were coming up with yarn with some hay in it that could be knit or woven into scratchy, primitive garments.

Imagine our surprise when we heard that we had been entered in the islands’ first Sheep to Shawl by Burrell Osborne himself. According to him we should find ourselves a sheep shearer and a volunteer sheep, come up with a team and a weaver with a loom and a pattern, and get to practicing. According to him, there was no getting out of it as the Fairbooks were already being printed. Furthermore, the other islands were getting ready at this very moment! And, as they say, the rest is history. You can see a Sheep to Shawl on the Saturday of the San Juan County Fair, which is usually held in the third week of August. The sheep are not shorn at the fair, anymore; and the resulting shawls are soft, colorful, and gorgeous. The competition is still alive and well. Oh yes, who did win that very first sheep to shawl? The answer will depend upon the person being asked and what island they live on!

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