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RaggZ Fiber Affair and Wool Market exudes warm, homey touch

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Toni Ritchey at her shop RaggZ Fiber Arts in Forbes Road.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Toni Ritchey with her cat Critter in front of her shop Raggz RaggZ Fiber Arts in Forbes Road.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Sheep mill about a pasture at the farm of Toni Ritchey in Forbes Road.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Toni Ritchey at her farm in Forbes Road.

Hand-spun wool and other specialty items make the upcoming RaggZ Fiber Affair and Wool Market in Delmont a rare treat for knitters, crocheters and other crafters.

Slated for April 29 at the Delmont Fire Hall, the festival will feature 22 vendors selling yarn, handcrafted needle-arts accessories and small-batch soaps, according to organizer Toni Ritchey, owner of RaggZ Fiber Art yarn shop in Forbes Road.

“It will have an indie feel. No commercial yarn is allowed,” says Ritchey, of what has become a biannual event. “The beauty of it is that these are the little guys you don't normally see selling wool that they've cleaned, carded and spun themselves, from animals some have raised on their own farms.”

Dawn Shaffer of Spring Mills, near State College, will sell yarn from the 17 sheep she raises on her family's Lazy O Ranch, as well as hand-turned yarn bowls and drop spindles crafted by her husband, Larry, and crocheted and felted items her daughters make.

Shaffer's sheep are Coopworths, which yield a medium-grade fleece in a range of colors from black to white and variations of gray.

“The natural colors are gorgeous, but I dye some of my wool, too, because people like a lot of choices,” says Shaffer, who claims there is a big difference between buying wool sold in big box stores and that from small farms such as hers.

“Wool can be dramatically different from one sheep to the next, within the same flock,” says Shaffer, who does all the shearing on her farm. “Some is coarser than others and some sheep produce more lanolin than others.”

Shaffer tags every skein with the name of the sheep that yielded the wool, like Pablo, one of her rams. “For a lot of people, it's more personal than pulling a hank of yarn off a shelf that was probably made in China, not that that's bad,” Shaffer says.

Other festival products will include hand-painted yarns by Meadowcroft Dyeworks of Washington County, vegetable-dyed fibers by Youghiogheny Yarns of Connellsville, and angora and other fibers from Roving Acres Farm of Pierpont, Ohio. Rebecca Shefler of Greensburg will vend her Dusty Tree wool wash, body soaps and hand-crocheted washcloths.

While some vendors market their goods online, festivals provide a rare grassroots experience for buyers, Ritchey says, “You can go to a shop and not see this yarn. I carry it, but you don't normally find it elsewhere. And yarn is one of those things you really want to touch and feel.”

The RaggZ festival will be a first for Lisa Beamer Cannon of Trafford, who launched Fiber Nymph Dye Works four years ago. She specializes in self-striping and gradient-dyed yarns — two labor-intensive processes — and typically works in vivid colors.

“I'm a knitter and I couldn't find many ‘indie' dyers doing self-striping,” she says. “People who follow my yarns like the brighter bolder colors. I don't do much in the pastel realm.”

Organizing the festival comes naturally to Ritchey, whose yarn shop is a gathering spot for local crafters through much of the year.

“It's a wonderful yarn shop, but it's much more than that,” observes Barb Grossman of Monroeville, who stages the annual Pittsburgh Knit and Crochet Festival and Creative Arts Festival in downtown Pittsburgh. “It's almost a community center.”

Ritchey opened RaggZ six years ago at the urging of her mother, who came to live with her and husband on their farm. “I had no business experience,” Ritchey recalls, “and I thought, who would ever find me in Forbes Road? People don't even know it's a town.”

It was slow-going at first, but the shop evolved into a hub, she says. “I kept telling myself, ‘One more year, one more year' … which was something my customers didn't want to hear. And I eventually realized, ‘What would I do without these ladies?' I've never had so many female friends in my life.”

Although she never anticipated owning a yarn shop, neither did she expect to live on a farm, an adventure she embarked on with Tom, her second husband, in 2009, when they purchased a 70-acre property that was overgrown and neglected about 10 minutes from her shop. “It's not a postcard farm,” says Ritchey, 62.

“Tom had farmed before, but I had no idea how much work it would be,” says Ritchey, who had moved to the Delmont area from Pittsburgh with her first husband in 1988, because they wanted more room for their children.

Ritchey had always worked in offices, but she took to rural living and now raises sheep, goats, cattle, chickens, and bees.

“We don't have crops, but we do our own hay. And I've learned so much about animals, about the birthing process and about death. We had three calves born last week,” says Ritchey, who sells fresh eggs and honey along with wool from her sheep at RaggZ.

Her own experiences have given her an affinity for other small, agricultural producers, which is why she likes showcasing their wool at her festival, she says. “My heart is with the farmers. None of us has more than 50 animals and we love them and raise them ethically. A lot of people appreciate that.”

Trisha Eliason of Gypsy Stardust Yarn and Fiber in Greensburg, one of the vendors at the festival, is teaming up with the Blackburn Center and will be collecting donations of non-perishable goods and gift cards to Walmart/Target at her booth. For each shopping bag or gift card that you donate, you will be entered into a raffle to win a skein of her handspun yarn.

Deborah Weisberg is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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