Sunday, September 15, 2013


Throughout the Werdenfelser Land in September, the subtle seasonal changes that begin in mid-August become more pronounced. Dried leaves drift from trees and the sun makes shorter, less frequent appearances. The klingel-klangel of sheep, goat and cow bells announces the animals, sleek and plump from grazing through the summer on a diet of grasses and flowers on mountain meadows. They trot through town, on their way to  smaller pastures where they will graze for the next month or so until cold weather finally forces them into barns for the winter. This is the season for the Almabtrieb in southern Bavaria. 

The sheep returned to Garmisch early this past Sunday and by 10 a.m., they had been herded into temporary pens in the center of town for the Schafpraemierung--a sheep show and judging.  As I walked through the pedestrian zone, I could hear the bleating and baa-ing of the sheep as they puzzled over their temporary quarters and complained about the impending shearing, also on the day’s schedule. 

When I walked into the square, the priest was saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the safe return. After he finished, he walked by the pens, blessing the animals with sprinkles of Holy Water. Then the day’s main event, the sheep show, with its judging and awards, started and the beer tent opened.

Lamb and sheep bells

Although the sheep were the main attraction, several artisans demonstrated crafts associated with raising sheep. One man from Sudtirol, the northernmost part of Italy just south of the Austrian border, sold hand-crafted bells for sheep and goats--these sturdy bells are meant to be hung around the animals’ necks so the shepherd can find lost members of the flock even in foggy weather. The bells vary in size, from small ones intended for new-borns to a substantial size for the bocks.

Even more impressive than the bells, he had also crafted sheep-sized collars (they also fit goats) as well as much larger collars for cattle. Farmers ‘dress' their animals for a festive entrance into town in these neck pieces, which are decorated with  intricate carvings and metal designs, as well as incised motifs. In addition, the animals often wear bouquets or garlands of Alpine flowers--they’re truly the fashionistas of the animal world.

Franz Greber, an organic farmer who raises endan-
gered breeds of sheep, demon-strated making felt, a heavy, water-repellent material used locally to make hats and slippers. 

First, he laid a sheet of carded wool flat on a table. On top, he placed a hat-shaped pattern and folded over all the edges of the wool to completely encase the pattern. Greber splashed the fluffed wool with hot water and sprinkled on a few drops of a natural soap. “You must work the wet wool  gently with the fingertips until the wool compacts,” he explained in his Bavarian-accented German. “The fibers must be evenly distributed around the pattern, which is now sealed inside the wool." 

He handed the now triangular-shaped cloth to his helper, a young neighbor, who pressed the wool repeatedly with a rolling pin over a washboard, to further flatten and compact it. 

After the rolling, Greber took over again, continuing to press and smooth the wool flat on a table, still adding dribbles of soap and water. Then, he, too, used a rolling pin to make the fibers contract into the proper shape. Eventually, when the wool was sufficiently dense, he used scissors to snip what will be the brim of the hat open and removed the form. 

Finally, he shaped the nascent hat over a wooden form until eventually the finished hat emerged.  The end product, the natural color of Greber's rare local braune Bergschafen sheep, is guaranteed to protect a shepherd’s head from the winds and cold that blow from the high mountain pastures into the valley.

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