Angora

Rabbits are one of the oldest mammals...

The animal

Rabbits are one of the oldest mammals dating back at least 30millions years, however, they were one of the last animals to be domesticated. French Catholic monks started to keep them for meat about 1,400 years ago. It is quite a diverse Genus of mammals with 50 species including hares and jackrabbits, with the domesticated rabbits all descended from the European wild rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus. Over 100 breeds of tame rabbits have descended from this lone species. Historically the European wild rabbit was thought to be limited to southwestern Europe in countries such as Spain and Portugal but have now colonised the continent. The Phoenician sailors of 3000 years ago upon discovering Spain called the area i-shephan-im which means the land of the rabbit!
The primary source of rabbit fibre is the Angora, although other fuzzy breeds also grow spinnable wool they are much smaller and therefore not commercially viable for yarn production. The iconic long coat of the Angora, favoured by pet owners and wool producers is a result of a specific gene, the Angora gene, and has been bred into other breeds, such as lion head and Jersey woolie.
The origin of the Angora rabbit is debatable although the name implies that they came from modern-day Turkey (Angora is the historic name of Ankara, the capital city of Turkey), whilst others argue that they were first bred in Britain. They became a firm favourite with the French Royalty after their first arrival into France in 1723 and spread throughout Europe by the end of the century. Whatever their origins there are at least 11 recognised breeds, depending on which country you live in will depend on the breeds that are recognised, common ones are English, French, Giant and Satin Angora, whilst others include German, Chinese, Finnish, Japanese, Korean Angora, Russian, St Lucian and Swizz Angora… I think you may have picked up the theme here.

The fibre

The coats have four different types of fibres, two kinds of guard hairs and awn hairs, and whilst all Angora rabbits produce each type of fibre in their coats the proportions of each vary considerably. Guard hairs are generally not sorted out of the harvested hair, unlike for llamas, alpacas and camels for example, where the guard hairs can be quite spikey. Therefore, a breed of rabbit with fewer guard hairs will produce the softest yarn. Harvesting of the hair varies with English, French and Satin Angoras moulting every three months, so they can be combed or plucked when loose, whilst Giant and German Angoras don’t shed and therefore their fleeces much be shorn. The down (undercoat) fibres are 5.5-20 microns, and mostly in the range of 8-15 microns. Awn hairs have similar dimensions (10-30 microns) however they are characterised by the wider tip (40 microns). Guard hairs are between 44-48 microns. Elasticity is varied but low as the crimp of the fibre is wavy giving a nice fabric to items knitted from it. As with any domestic breed, breeding for different characters of the fibre takes place, and so yarm from rabbits that produce more crimp is available. The fibre is generally spun unwashed.

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Ethical and environmental considerations

Regular grooming is necessary to prevent matting of this fine fibre, if allowed to mat it can cause discomfort pain and even infection. The rabbits natural grooming technique of licking can lead to wool block due to the length of the fibre it has been bred for and their inability to cough it up. Wool block can be lethal to the rabbit as it is a physical blockage of the digestive tract. f you are going to use Angora wool try and stick to the breeds that naturally lose their hair, plucking can involve terrible pain and damage to the rabbit as the fur is pulled from them. Large scale commercial rabbit farming involves the rabbits being kept separately inside in small cages, much like battery chickens, which for a social animal does not meet welfare standards. The largest producer of Angora wool is China which currently does not have any animal welfare laws. When done on a small-scale Angora fibre production can be ethical. Yarn certified by Caregora ensures that the welfare of the rabbits harvested meet the European Animal Welfare Standards and the stricter Animal Welfare Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock The quality of the fibres decrease with age and in commercial farms, most rabbits will be slaughtered at that time.
Taking on board all these factors, Angola has potentially high welfare costs to the rabbits from which it comes. Also visit Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) and World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) to help you with your ethical and environmental consumer decisions.

Knitting with it

So why knit with Angora fibre,? Well, it offers warmth, fluffiness and the softest of touch. It is often blended into other yarns to increase these qualities in fibres that may lack them. Be warned a pure Angora yarn has low elasticity, is very delicate and so can abrade easily and the fluffiness can cause it to felt and mat, therefore the care of Angora made products is more time-consuming. There are low levels of lanolin in this fibre and so allergic reactions to it are rare, however, some people are allergic to their saliva which is on the fibre due to the rabbit grooming technique of lickings itself. The fizziness of this fibre will hide intricate stitching and weaves so best avoided for those patterns.

The fibre

Ethical and environmental considerations

Knitting with it

Gallery