Two Decades and Counting: Wisconsin Wool Works! A Success Story
For years the Sheep & Goat Barn at the Wisconsin State Fair has held one of the better kept secrets of the fair experience. It might not be what the average fairgoer would think of as the go-to place to for hand-knitted sweaters, yarn, sheepskin slippers and roving, but once through the door, most first-time visitors are hooked. The Wisconsin Wool Works! is definitely habit forming.
Envisioned in 1999 by a small group of enthusiasts as a way to both promote and merchandise Wisconsin-sourced fiber products, and sponsored by the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Co-op, the booth has grown from its original, tightly packed 400 square feet to double the size. Thanks to the encouragement and investment of state fair’s Agriculture Department, the emphasis has grown to encompass education about the fiber arts and the added space has allowed a steady stream of local guild members and consignors to daily demonstrate their skills at spinning, knitting, weaving and felting. It’s rare not to see children - and adults - watching intently as the mysteries of a drop spindle are explained or trying their hand at a spinning wheel.
The focus, of course, is on sales and promotion for the sheep and fiber industries over the fair’s eleven-day run. Consignors are required to be co-op members and to give at least a day to the booth to answer questions, help with the cash register or demonstrate a skill. For the opportunity to sell their products to hundreds of daily visitors passing through the sheep barn, consignors pay 25% of their respective gross sales to the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders. Combined with the sales from the Wisconsin Wool Works! booth at the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival, the cooperative nets between $5,000 and $8,000 a year after expenses. While the goal is to first promote Wisconsin artists and businesses, commercially-sourced items often fill the gaps in product displays.
In addition to the dozen consignors and volunteers who help on a daily basis at the fair, the Wool Works is managed by Kim Ogle, Saint Francis; Charlie Neuman, Milwaukee; and Carol Black, Columbus. The festival booth at Jefferson is managed by Black and Neuman and staffed by another six consignors and volunteers.
While the physical structure that houses the Wool Works is owned by the Wisconsin State Fair, the Sheep Breeders is responsible for most of the upgrades and maintenance. The booth is also subject to the scrutiny of the Wisconsin State Fair Vendor Services which yearly evaluates and scores each vendor against a set of standards in the fair’s Vendor Manual, offering suggestions for improvement where appropriate. A perfect score is 5.0 and in 2018 the Wool Works received a score of 4.5. But keeping the shopping experience fresh is a challenge, especially with hundreds of items displayed in less than 800 square feet and with an eye on the budget. However, in recent years the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders has made numerous investments in the space such as installing an epoxy floor, adding lighting, investing in displays and painting. For the foreseeable future, the Wisconsin Wool Works! will keep telling the story of Wisconsin's fiber artists and industry, building that habit forming experience among its many customers. For more information about the Wisconsin Wool Works! contact Carol Black at 920 296-0326; Kim Ogle at 414 702-8121 or Charlie Neuman at 414 445-2927.
Kim Ogle (l.), St. Francis and Charlie Neuman, Milwaukee, help manage the Wisconsin Wool Works! booth at the Wisconsin State Fair, now going into its twentieth year. Located in the middle of the Sheep & Goat Barn, the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Co-op's retail space attracts hundreds of fairgoers during the eleven-day run of the fair and displays the products of over two dozen consignors.