Fiber farming’s smallest critters are angora rabbits, sweet little fuzzballs who can produce bags full of fleece every few months, fertilize the lawn and garden in an earth-friendly manner, and charm their way into many hearts with their surprisingly friendly antics.
There are 5 breeds of angora rabbits: German, English, French, Satin and Giant, as well as cross bred angoras. The different breeds vary in appearance, as well as fleece type and fiber production.
French and Satin angoras have what is called a clean-face look, growing long fiber only on their bodies, while English are known for their adorable “fully furnished” faces, with fiber growing along their ears, foreheads, cheeks and legs, as well as the body.
German angoras can range from the clean face look of French to fully furnished “foofy faced” like the English, and everything in between. Giant angoras were developed from the German angora, and also vary in amount of furnishings. German angoras can produce 3 to 4 pounds of fiber per year, with some growing up to 5 pounds of fiber per year, while the other breeds tend to produce less than a pound to 2 pounds per year. Crossbred angoras are a mix of breeds, with one breed usually predominant. Their fleeces vary, and often reflect the type from the predominant breed.
The two basic fleece types in angora rabbits influence how the fleece is harvested.
English, French and Satin angoras typically molt (release and shed their fiber) a few times per year, while German and Giant angoras do not molt. Satin angoras also molt, but have a different structure to their fiber which produces a silky sheen unique to them. Angoras that molt are typically either hand plucked or combed to remove the fiber, while those that do not molt are sheared, either with scissors or with clippers. Neither of these processes harm the animals in any way.
Angora rabbits can be housed either inside or outside, and they can be litter box trained. Rabbits allowed to roam inside the house should be supervised to prevent injury to the animal as well as to the house. They like to dig and chew, and things like electrical and computer cords and chair legs attract their attention. When housed outside, they must be protected from the weather and potential predators. Predators include family pets, neighbors’ wandering animals, unsupervised children, coyotes, raccoons, bears, snakes and assorted other wildlife.
Here at Woolybuns, the rabbits are generally German angoras and German crossbreds, so the rabbits are clipped, not plucked. I chose the Germans because of their abundance of fiber production, ease of coat maintenance, and friendly temperament. I harvest their fiber with small, sharp, pointy scissors while the bunny is on my lap.
I start with petting because really: How can you not? Cuteness aside, petting the bunny for a few minutes before shearing builds trust and relaxes the bunny. Rabbits as prey animals have a very strong fight or flight instinct and being picked up and flipped over is not generally a friendly experience for them in the wild. Trust and familiarity helps make the shearing experience gentler and faster. Daily handling, including gently turning the rabbit over on it’s back, touching feet, and petting the belly, helps the rabbit accept the grooming and shearing process without fear.
Once I have a rabbit calmly perched in my lap for shearing, I check to see if the bunny needs any brushing. Usually, the Germans do not. Then I roll the bunny onto its back, stroke it’s forehead a few times, and start clipping along the length from hind foot to front leg at the elbow area, starting on the side furthest from me. That allows me to carefully clip a base line, watching closely for nipples when clipping a doe. Once that first line is clipped, I keep the fiber to be clipped pushed away from me so I can see the skin line. Then I clip along that line, rolling the rabbit towards me as needed to keep the skin line clearly visible. Eventually, I get to the other side of the rabbit’s belly, and again carefully clip that line while watching for nipples on does.
For belly clipping, I reposition the rabbit so I have its hind end resting on my legs and the head gently tucked between my left side and my left elbow, making sure chest wool is not blocking the bunny’s breathing. In this position, I can hold hind legs, one at a time, stretched out for better access when clipping the tricky genital area, especially with the bucks. Once that area is done, I shift the rabbit so its hips are gently but firmly between my knees, it’s back resting on my belly. With the bunny’s ears carefully flattened between the bunny’s back and my chest, I lift the bunny’s chin so I can clip across the chest, watching carefully for the extra curves of the dewlap (the fold of skin under the chin). Ears, face and tail can all be trimmed, or no,t if you like to brush those areas out for the cuteness factor.
Once the shearing process is done, there is all that angora fiber to deal with. I use grocery store plastic bags for fiber storage. As I clip, I can either just drop the fiber to the clean floor (wood, not carpet) and scoop it up after, or set up small trash cans lined with the bags, and sort the fiber into prime, second and trash as I go. I label the bags with date, weight, and bunny’s name, then store the plastic bags full of fiber in brown paper bags for moth protection. I send most of my angora to the mill for blending with other fibers, washing it first, and often dyeing it as well.
Spinning well-prepared angora blend roving is a delicious experience, about as wonderful as having bunny companions hopping around. With practice, raising and spinning bunny is also as easy as it is rewarding.