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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2011

Fair icon Francis Ripley spins tales as she spins yarn from dog and sheep

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Half-a-dozen different sounds filled the sheep and goat barn as Nancy Morey moved methodically down a long table, judging the piles of fleece set on top of it.

Rooster crows, calls from the goat judging, drilling to make spindles, bleating, and the thumping of music from the midway met in a cacophony around the little white barn at the Altamont fairgrounds on Tuesday.

Nearby, Francis Ripley took note of the sounds and thought, “What a joy this is.  So much life.  So much activity.”

She has been spinning at the fair since 1979.  She had learned to spin the year before and Bill Shane, who worked in the Masons’ food stand at the fair, suggested that she bring her spinning wheel to the sheep barn.  They put a rug on the floor and she sat there, soaking up advice from passing exhibitors, there with their sheep.  Now, at 91, Ripley refers to the people in the sheep barn as “the shepherd’s family.”

This year, Heather Yost drove four hours to Ripley’s new home in Olean, N.Y. to bring her to Altamont for fair week.  “She’s been an icon here for as long as I can remember,” Yost said.

When she was 4 years old, Ripley said, her grandmother taught her to knit.  Since then, she has taken up embroidery, tatting, and hooking, among other things.  In the late 1970s, someone gave her a Maltese dog named Angie.  She couldn’t bear to throw away its fur, so she decided to learn to spin.  She picked up a bag of fleece from the sheep barn at the fair and learned to spin using sheep’s wool.

The yarn from Angie’s hair doesn’t feel much different from the merino wool with which people often knit, Ripley said, producing an intricately knit lace shawl as an example.

It’s also not the only dog hair that she has spun.  Several years ago, a nun came to the fair carrying a sandwich bag full of hair, hoping to find out if it could be spun into yarn.  Every day when she brushed her golden retriever, the nun would save the hair and Ripley spun it into yarn for her.  The nun was able to make an afghan and a sweater out of it, Ripley said.

“What I’m doing at the moment is usually my favorite,” she said of which task she favors.  Ripley spent 30 years in an embroidery guild and has done historic reproductions for Peebles Island, Johnson Hall, Olana, and the Mills mansion.  When the antique textiles kept at the historic sites start to disintegrate, their caretakers employ reproduction sewers like Ripley.  They don’t sew something like the old piece, they reproduce, stitch for stitch, exactly the same piece.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to daydream,” she said of doing the work.  She’d wonder what the people who made the originals had been thinking as they sewed — did they do it for a job, did they do it for posterity, did they hate the work?

“You invent all kinds of scenarios,” Ripley said.

Since she’s gone blind, she’s given up embroidery.  Ripley still spins and knits, but not with commercial yarn.  “You get spoiled really fast,” she said, motioning to a bag full of Border Leicester sheep fleece with a blue ribbon draped on top.

Winning fleeces piled up in one corner of the sheep barn on Tuesday afternoon as Nancy Morey awarded ribbons.  In a deliberate manner, for each class of fleece, she worked her way down the table, plunging her hands into the middle of the fleece, picking a clump of wool from three different parts, and plucking a strand like a guitar string next to her ear.  If it doesn’t have a ring, it’s called a dead fleece, she explained.

After inspecting each one, Morey starts to rearrange the line-up of fleeces according to her placement of them.  “From here, it’s subjective,” she says of the judging.  “We all have likes and dislikes.”

In the long-wool class, which had 14 entries, she put a clean, lustrous Romney fleece first, a small-yield but beautiful Teeswater fleece second, and a fine, corkscrew curl baby fleece third.

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