Vol. V, No. 2, Fall 1991



Sheep-to-Shawl at Shiloh Museum

By Carolyn Reno



Carolyn Reno is the Registrar of the Shiloh Museum in Springdale, Arkansas.

The Shiloh Museum is dedicated to the preservation of the history of Northwest Arkansas including Ozarks culture and crafts. The Museum's sheep-to-shawl program is a hands-on experience with a traditional Ozarks craft.

The Museum has been holding sheep-to-shawl programs since 1987. The first one attempted to follow the traditional sheep-to-shawl event where guilds competed to produce a shawl, beginning with the shearing of the sheep and following through the washing, carding, and spinning of the wool to the weaving. The event has since evolved into a program whereby school children and the public are exposed to the handwork involved in a traditional method of cloth production.

A visit to sheep-to-shawl begins at the shearing station. The shearing station is set up in a shaded area in the Museum complex, and is surrounded by a nineteenth century log cabin, general store, and doctor's office.

Sheep for the demonstration are provided by local ranchers. Stan and Caye Mort of Hogeye and Ann Smitherman of Winslow brought their Cheviot and Romney sheep to the first sheep-to-shawl. Since 1988 Clair and Cheryl Driggs of the Antioch area (Washington County) have been bringing their Cheviot lambs to be sheared. The Driggs, who have raised sheep in Oregon, have been in the Ozarks for nine years and believe "it is ideal country for raising sheep." They take great pleasure in the program and the fact that it exposes so many people to an experience that is rarely seen these days.

The shearing is done by Paul Ahrens, one of a handful of professional shearers operating in northwest Arkansas. Ahrens, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, talks visitors through the technology of shearing, demonstrating first with hand shears, then shears operated by a hand crank, and finally with modem electric shears. How the sheep are held for shearing, how the wool comes off as a fleece, fascinates the viewing public.

From the shearing station, visitors proceed to the Museum's 19th century general store building where the Wool and Wheel Handspinners Guild and the Northwest Arkansas Handweavers' Guild demonstrate the crafts of carding, spinning and weaving.

Paul Ahrens uses electric shears to shear a sheep. In the foreground, ca. 1902 hand-crank shears. Ahrens allows the school children to turn the crank when he demonstrates with them.

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The Handspinners Guild is a new organization but its membership consists of experienced as well as novice spinners. Some of these spinners once belonged to the Ozark Mountain Yarn Spinners, the group that first approached the Museum about the program. The Handweavers' Guild was originally organized as the Benton County Rug Weavers Association in the 1920s. They became the Northwest Arkansas Handweavers Guild in the late 1940s and their workshops, held at the War Eagle Mill, evolved into the War Eagle Arts and Crafts Fair in 1954. Both guilds have been highly committed to the Museum's sheep-to-shawl program since its beginnings.

The program is held for two days in early October. While the program is open to the public at all times, scheduled tours of school children make up the bulk of visitors to the program. Demonstrators speak to about 450 children over the two days. The program has been enthusiastically received by area teachers who say it fits in well with studies of pioneer life and culture. Many teachers begin calling the Museum in early September to reserve a tour time.

Sheep-to-shawl has become a major autumn event at the Shiloh and is one way that the Museum is working to preserve traditional Ozarks crafts.

Photos courtesy Shiloh Museum.
Shannon Rhine quizzes children while Beverly Nissen demonstrates on the walking wheel. In the foreground another spinner cards wool.
Astrid Aberg of the Northwest Arkansas Handweavers' Guild explains how raising threads with a loom's harnesses creates a shed for the shuttle to fly through in the weaving process.

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