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In a Sheep to Shawl competition, you have 5 people, 1 sheep, and 3 hours — good luck!

The Quaker Bakers team is made up of students from the Sandy Spring Friends School. They participated in the "Sheep to Shawl" competition at the Maryland Sheep & Wool festival as part of their fiber arts class. From left, Ayla Keynes, Caitlyn Holland, Travis Hurley, Zoe Burgess, teacher Heidi Brown, and (front) shearer Emily Chamelin.
Rachel Guy Adra
The Quaker Bakers team is made up of students from the Sandy Spring Friends School. They participated in the "Sheep to Shawl" competition at the Maryland Sheep & Wool festival as part of their fiber arts class. From left, Ayla Keynes, Caitlyn Holland, Travis Hurley, Zoe Burgess, teacher Heidi Brown, and (front) shearer Emily Chamelin.

At the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, the "Sheep to Shawl" challenge is simultaneously cut-throat competitive and warm and fuzzy.

Each team is made up of one sheep and five people: one shearer, three spinners, and a weaver. The team has three hours to shear the sheep, card the wool, spin the wool into yarn, and then weave that yarn into an award-winning shawl.

Preparation is the secret to success, says Margie Wright, team captain of The Fidget Spinners. She spent months looking for the perfect sheep for her team. "The hard part is finding a sheep that's not too greasy," she explains.

Because the competitors are spinning wool that hasn't been processed, it still has lanolin in it. This makes the wool greasier and more difficult to spin, so the ideal is finding a sheep with less lanolin to begin with. The teams also spent hours getting their looms ready for weaving. Wright explains this can take as long as seven hours to do.

One group of people hoping to weave their way to glory this year was much younger than the others. Four high schoolers from a local Quaker school participated as part of their fiber arts class.

"Learning to weave was the most difficult thing I'd tried in my life," says 18-year-old Caitlyn Holland. She and her teammates started learning just six months ago, and their teacher, Heidi Brown, says they're already impressive spinners and weavers.

Brown adds that this is the second junior team that has ever competed in the Sheep & Wool Festival. The first team was in the 1970s. She is already planning to continue the program for her students next year.

It takes a lot more than just speedy spinning to win the competition though. Former competitor Jennifer Lackey says the contestants are also judged on the quality of their shawl, teamwork and less fiber-arts related aspects such as the team's theme and costumes.

This year's teams were all enthusiastically prepared to earn points for themes and shawl quality alike. The high school students, competing as The Quaker Bakers, wore aprons and made rainbow cupcakes to match their rainbow-themed shawl. The Fidget Spinners chose "I Love Ewe" as their theme and covered their shawl in hearts. The third team, which arguably should have won an award just for their name — "Mutton but Trouble" — wore crocheted acorn hats and made a fall-colored shawl to represent their theme of squirrels.

Of the three teams competing for three awards, The Quaker Bakers placed third, Mutton But Trouble came in second, and The Fidget Spinners took home the first prize.

Overall, it's fair to say, a competition less wild than wooly.

See what it looks like for yourself — here's a video from the 2017 "Sheep to Shawl" competition at the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival:

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 14, 2023 at 9:00 PM PDT
In previous audio and web versions of this story, teacher Heidi Brown was misidentified as Heidi First.
Tilda Wilson