2022 International Wool Challenge Back to Back Competition

words and photos by: Odediah Skolnick

As I turned away from the sheep with a mighty handful of freshly shorn Jacob fleece, I shouted out, “Spinners up!” To my bewilderment, I watched as all the spinners hastily ran away, leaving me standing there quietly asking, “Where are you all going? Wait for me!” 


Thus started the 2022 International Wool Challenge Back to Back Competition for The Granite Web Makers, the third US team to compete and New Hampshire’s first team. We had been practicing for two years. Slated to debut in 2020, the International Committee for the Challenge stopped all competitions due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The annual competition reopened for 2022 world wide, and once again The Granite Web Makers set practice schedules and the event day. 


The International Wool Challenge Back to Back event can trace its roots to 1811. Under the watchful eyes of five thousand people, a coat was completed in thirteen hours from a sheep’s back to man’s back at Newbury in Berkshire, UK. Now step forward to 1992, when Richard Snow from Aberfoyle, Scotland, revived the Back to Back Challenge that continues today. The competition has rules that teams must follow. A team consists of a sheep, a shearer that will hand blade shear, and seven spinners/knitters. There is a team-supported timekeeper and stitch assessor. A challenge sweater pattern must be followed exactly by all teams. Rules pertain to the sheep, knitter, and spinner. Two goals are achievable by this competition. The first is bringing attention to the use of local wool, and the second is raising funds for cancer research and support. 

The Granite Web Makers began their first practice session in March 2022 with a freshly shorn Shetland fleece. The team met monthly until the date of competition. From the Shetland fleece, team members made handspun handknit articles for the event day raffle. The articles ranged from nalbinding hand mitts, winter cabled hats, a shawl, mittens, fingerless gauntlet gloves and two lovely 4-ounce skeins. 


In the second session the team spun a freshly shorn Polypay fleece and made a toddler’s sweater to judge knitting speed, spinning partners, and a main plying team member and to learn spinning techniques for spinning raw fiber. Spinning raw fiber is very different from spinning processed fiber. Each breed of sheep brings a different lanolin content; thus, new spinning techniques must be acquired. Freshly spun fleece also creates challenges for the knitters as well. Lanolin can create sticky needles and tight stitches. 


In the third practice session the team spun a raw Jacob fleece. Although not freshly shorn, it had an open lock formation quite different from the Polypay. A generous team member, Donna Kay, had volunteered her personal Jacob sheep for the event day shearing. The team members were Rosemary Zurawel, Jessica Elliot, Noreen Estes, Hope Fridy, Tameson O’Brien, Donna Kay, and Odediah Skolnick, captain, and Tim Molinero, shearer. Sue Small was timekeeper. The team of accomplished spinners and knitters was ready!

(The Granite Web Makers 2022 l–r: Sue Small, Donna Kay, Rosemary Zurawel, Tameson O’Brian, Jessica Elliott, Odediah Skolnick, Hope Fridy, Noreen Estes) 

The 2022 International Wool Challenge Competition for New Hampshire was held at The Colonel Paul Wentworth House in Rollinsford, NH. This two-story historical house built in 1701 has a handsome interior and beautiful grounds. The day dawned a sunny blue sky with a cool early summer breeze. The team had it made! It also made for a perfect day for the spectators and a cool breeze to thwart the biting black flies. The team’s shearer, Tim Molinero from Heart Stone Farm in Milton, New Hampshire, arrived with his hand blade shears glinting in the morning sun. Next to arrive were Donna Kay’s two Jacob sheep, mother and daughter. One to be shorn and one for company. They came complete with their own fencing, water, and hay and were set up under the shade of a large old maple tree. The team set up on the opposite side of the grounds under two canopies, one for the team and the other for the event day raffle. Ground covers were laid out, wheels placed, chairs procured, tables draped in black decorative cloth, raffle items displayed, and a tarp placed for shearing. In addition to the competition, the day included a presentation on historic spinning by Judy Cataldo and a collection of historic spinning wheels of Industry by Peter Cook.

(Tim Molinero, shearer)

Official competition time begins when the shearer’s blade touches the sheep. Promptly at 9 a.m., Tim began the shearing. The first knitter cast on at 9:35 a.m. with the front of the sweater, the second knitter cast on the first sleeve at 10:00 a.m., the third knitter cast on the second sleeve at 10:15 a.m., and the fourth knitter cast on the back of the sweater at 10:30 a.m. This left three spinners supporting four knitters! The team carried on spinning singles, plying, and knitting for ten straight hours. Any team member leaving for a short break was covered by another team member. The knitting needles were never idle, and the wheels never stopped spinning. 


As the day progressed, the spinners noted an increased difficulty in formulating a spinning triangle. As the Jacob fleece cooled, the lanolin present in the fiber slowly turned into a gritty wax, making the drafting of fiber increasingly more difficult as the day wore on. The knitters too noticed an increased difficulty in the stitches sticking to the needles, despite cleaning the needles every twenty-five stitches or so. The harder the team worked, the slower the process of spinning and knitting became. Eventually, the whole process ground to a halt at 7:00 p.m. The sleeves were within 20 rows of finishing and the body of the sweater was to the halfway mark front and back. Disappointed but not beaten, the team vowed to return again the following year! 


The team chose Amy’s Treat, a local organization that works with the Seacoast Cancer Center in Dover, New Hampshire. Amy’s Treat provides services to cancer patients outside of their cancer treatments. At the end of the event, the team raised $896 for this wonderful organization. 


As captain of The Granite Web Makers, I encourage any spinner to gather a team together and step into a remarkable spinners’ space. You are a very different accomplished spinner after the competition. I’ve been spinning for 47 years, and I’ve never spun with such fervor and speed. We had a grand time promoting wool by spinning and knitting. We did a good deed for a local cancer assist organization. 


Register your team with the International Wool Challenge Back to Back Coordinator, through Wendy Dennis (wool@Tarndie.com) for the 2024 competition. Currently, there are only three US teams: California, Maine, and New Hampshire. The only US team to complete the competition sweater for 2022 was The Maine Spinners with a time of 11 hours 49 minutes 55 seconds. The winner of the 2022 International Wool Challenge Back to Back Competition was The Poly Westers, Alberta, Canada, with a time of 10 hours 55 minutes. Spinners, register your teams and go get your place! 

Odediah Skolnick lives in the northern mountains of New Hampshire on a small homestead farm. Her passions are spinning fibers and creating open spaces in a free exchange of spinning techniques where other fiber spinners can develop opportunity, freedom, and peace in their handspinning. 

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