Farming fiber

Skeins of yarn hang in a vivid rainbow of hand-dyed colors. Rovings of carded wool spark imaginative visions of homespun crafts. Baskets of fluffy fleeces beg to be touched. Baby-soft scarves, hats and shawls beckon shoppers to admire their workmanship.

This is where agriculture meets art.

Offering everything from raw wool to finished goods, the annual Ozark Fiber Fling in Steelville, Mo., brings together farmers and artisans alike to celebrate the beauty, utility and versatility of fleece-producing animals and the creations they inspire. This November marks the 12th year for the lively event, which combines workshops, demonstrations and vendor booths for anything and everything related to the fiber arts.

“We want to bring people back to their natural resources and promote a heritage that’s beginning to be lost in our society,” said Lois Wissmann, one of the Fiber Fling’s founders and instructors. “Shining a light on fiber arts not only supports the American farmer, but it also supports the American craftsman.”

Like many of her fellow Flingers, Lois became a fiber artist after she began producing fiber animals. She and her husband, Don, bought their first sheep nearly 30 years ago as 4-H proj­ects for their now-grown children, Kim, Jon and Paul. The fam­ily tried several different breeds before settling on Columbia, a large-framed sheep raised for both meat and fiber. Developed in 1912, Columbia is one of the first all-American breeds of sheep, the product of USDA and university research in which Lincoln rams were crossed with Rambouillet ewes to create a hardy animal for western rangelands.

“When the kids grew up and were done with FFA and 4-H, we downsized the herd and stuck with the Columbias,” Don said. “Paul is our youngest, and that’s what he showed. Lois and I decided we liked the Columbias best. They have good mother­ing instincts and great growth characteristics. And we just love their personalities. The entertainment value of the lambs is just fantastic. They are so much fun to watch.”

Among only a handful of Columbia producers in Missouri, the Wissmanns maintain a small flock of these big sheep on their Raspberry Meadows Farm near Leasburg. They keep around a dozen ewes and a couple of rams, all of which are named and lovingly cared for by the devoted couple.

“With this breed, you get the best of everything,” Lois said. “They’ve given us so much—good fleece, good meat, good lambs. Most of all, they’ve given us satisfaction.”

Lois and Don are active in the Missouri Sheep Producers Association and the Columbia Sheep Breeders Association, which hosts a National Show and Sale each June. The Wiss­manns typically take several of their lambs to this event and may come back with new additions to their flock.

“At the show, judges are looking at things like genetics, conformation and wool quality,” Lois said. “Those are the same type of characteristics we look for in replacement ewes. What do I need to improve my animals? The 4-H motto is ‘To make the best better.’ It all comes back to that, even in other aspects of life.”

Along with good-quality alfalfa hay, the Wissmanns feed MFA’s 12% Sheep Pellets to the adults in the flock and MFA’s Lamb Starter/Grower to the younger animals. Lois said they feed twice a day, providing more nutrition during the winter and lactating months to ensure healthy lambs and reducing the amount of feed in the summer when grass is plentiful. The Wissmanns are customers of Farmers Coop Association #301 in Sullivan, an MFA local affiliate.

“MFA has great feed, and it shows when our sheep do well at the national level,” Lois said. “Our stock consistently places in the top 10 or even the top 5 of the Comeback Show, which is when junior members purchase a ewe lamb and return with it as a yearling next summer.”

Raspberry Meadows’ lambs are typically born from late fall through early February, which fits the timeframe when 4-H or FFA exhibitors are buying project animals. The Wissmanns also sell lambs off the farm when they are mature and ready for market. They’re especially popular at Christmas, Easter and ethnic holidays.

When it comes to the wool, the Wissmanns shear the sheep themselves, with each animal producing 10 to 12 pounds of fleece per shear­ing. Needing an outlet for that output, Lois learned to transform the wool into yarn and make her own homemade fiber crafts. She also enters the finest fleeces into competition and auctions at the national show and events closer to home, such as the Missouri State Fair.

“For smaller-scale producers like us, there isn’t a good market for the fleece, so the best thing to do is learn how to use it yourself or sell it to other fiber artists,” Lois said. “I would love to see some efforts to open up better markets for wool because it’s such a versatile, sustainable product. It can be used for insulation and erosion control, and its natural wicking properties make it the perfect material for uniforms and athletic clothing.”

Judging by participation in the Fiber Fling, other producers have the same dilemma. Many of the event’s vendors sell bags and baskets of fresh-from-the-farm fiber, not just from sheep but also from alpacas, angora goats, rabbits and even yaks. Others offer materials in various stages of processing—from rovings, which are carded but unspun bundles of fiber, to fin­ished skeins of yarn that are ready for crafting.

Many other vendors proudly peddle their own fiber creations, from clothing and coverings to home décor and handmade keepsakes. Still others display every imaginable tool of the trade for spinning, weaving, knitting, crocheting, felting and other fiber crafts.

“There aren’t a lot of brick-and-mortar stores anymore where you can find all these supplies under one roof,” Lois said. “We wanted to create an event that was not only good for the ven­dors—many of whom are farmers and artists themselves—but also good for the consumers.”

Although providing access to fiber-related products is an important draw, the educational aspect of the Fiber Fling is its true focus, said Ann Anderson of Dixon, Mo., another event organizer and instructor. The 2022 lineup includes 30 different classes over two days, covering such crafts such as embroidery, advanced crocheting techniques, spinning, basket weaving, batt making, needle felting and more. In addition, students can sign up for one-on-one tutorial opportunities in skills such as begin­ning spinning, crochet, knitting and weaving.

“Because we’re such a mobile society and not as insular as we used to be, events like this bring people together to learn and to exchange knowledge and ideas,” Ann said. “It keeps people engaged in something that is a lifelong hobby and keeps these skills alive.”

A great-aunt taught her how to crochet and sew as a child, but Ann said she didn’t do much with that knowledge until later in life. She met her husband, George, while they were in the U.S. Army and eventually ended up at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Once settled in the Show-Me State, Ann taught herself to quilt and got involved in a knitting group.

“I actually didn’t become a knitter until I was 50 years old,” she said. “Everything I teach now I have picked up in the last 18 years. Just goes to show, it’s never too late to learn.”

Fiber Fling participant Peggy Graham would agree. Even though she’s been knitting since she was 9 years old, she said there’s always something new to learn. She and a friend traveled from Carlinville, Ill., to attend the 2021 festival.

“I came to this in 2019, and it was the last fiber event I was able to attend before the pandemic,” said Peggy as she worked on a layered knitting project. “I really missed it and was determined that I was going to get here this time. I love the friendships, the camaraderie, and the fact that it’s all fiber people, who are awesome.”

Participation continues to grow every year, but the Fiber Fling remains a close-knit event, so to speak, to encourage inter­action among attendees and teachers. Both education and networking are essential to the future of the festival and fiber arts in general, Ann emphasized.

“Early on, we were excited if we had 30 students. Our largest has been 77 students,” she said. “This year, we had around 60. We want it to remain an intimate setting, so that we’re not overrun with people and can really provide some one-on-one instruc­tion. That’s the true value of an event like this—creating community. It’s important we have a cadre of people who can continue to pass these traditions from generation to generation.”

The 2022 Ozark Fiber Fling is planned for Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, at the Meramec Baptist Retreat Center, 243 Highway AA, Steelville, Mo. For more information and to register for classes, visit ozarkfiberfling.com, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 573-759- 3378 and ask for Ann.

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