Book Review: Angora: A Handbook For Spinners
Big ole’ Honeybun is most definitely comfortable now in her role as the mascot of my Summer Kitchen Dye Studio (the gussied-up name for my garage workspace equipped with an old stove, an old washer and a slew of shelves full of wool fleeces).
Even though she still crosses the entire garage to eat and to use the ladies’ room in her cage, most of the day she’s staked out next to the bootshelf by the house and back porch entrances. Perhaps, being a cautious creature by nature, she wants to keep both doors in view. In fact, Honeybun is so determined to maintain this vantage point that yesterday when the wash water overflowed the slop sink and flooded the floor under her, she sat tight in her spot, wet feet and all. Poor darlin’. What a faithful guard bunny.
Having never owned a rabbit before, I’m enjoying getting to know Honeybun both through my visits to her domain and my studies of The Book. I’ve got shelves of manuals on all of the animals, and hers is called “Angora: A Handbook for Spinners” by Erica Lynne.
That’s not angora hair by the book – it’s wool. I haven’t plucked enough to try my hand at spinning it yet. Here you can see my wheel, an Ashford Traditional, with a Lazy Kate on the floor and a Niddy Noddy on the old sewing rocker. One of the coolest things about spinning is that every piece of equipment has a fun, old-timey name!
My favorite parts of Lynne’s book are actually the various names given to angoras over the centuries, which she presents in a brief, but quite fascinating historical section. Prior to the 16th century, rabbits were only raised for sport hunting and meat, until some fancy color breeding in Europe spawned a fur industry. Then in 1708, a long-haired breed appeared in England described as a “white shock Turkey rabbit” and inspired use of the hair for fiber. Britain forbade export of the rabbits, to control the new market, but sailors apparently smuggled some to France. These sailors, perhaps to avoid prosecution, claimed the rabbits came from Asia Minor, hence the term “Angora.” Some people believe the breed actually came from Turkey, birthplace of the angora goat, whose fiber, nevertheless, is called mohair.
The French quickly developed the best breeds, and dominated world production for 250 years. They also came up with the sweetest names: “lapins de peigne,” combing rabbits, and my favorite, “lapins de soie,” silk rabbits. If I ever pluck and spin enough angora fiber to sell as yarn, I’d like to market it under the name Silken Bunny. Or knit a line of luxury baby booties. Silken Bunny Booties.
What I appreciate most about Lynne’s book is that she’s writing from the perspective of one actually making a living on her farm: raising the animals, spinning the fiber, knitting the yarn, selling the garments, and teaching classes. My dream! She’s funny, honest and practical, offering just enough information on handling the fiber and the animals to get a motivated person confidently started. She’s not talking to beginning spinners or knitters, though, just those new to angora, and her advice is quite to the point. In three paragraphs I learned the basics of what I needed to get spinning the slippery, fly-away fiber, including the important fact that the yarn is NOT fluffy until knitted or woven. Correctly spun angora will be flat, and the furry ends will slip out with friction against needles, hands and clothing. Another essential piece of information is that angora fiber has no bounce. Unlike wool, which is springy due to the tight crimp of the hairs, angora hairs are smooth or downy. So angora behaves a lot like silk, and doesn’t spring back when stretched. Lynne provides several of her patterns for suitable projects.
Certainly the most interesting facts Lynne reveals are those about the bunnies themselves. Coprophagy, for instance. “Through an odd evolutionary quirk, the digestive bacteria in rabbits are located in the appendix and caecum, which are lower in the digestive tract than the area where digested nutrients can be absorbed into the body.” says Lynne. “Rabbits deal with this unusual state of affairs by passing some of the food they eat through the digestive tract two or more times. This practice is called coprophagy, which is to say that rabbits eat some of their own droppings. However, they do this in an efficient, systematic manner, by producing two different types of droppings.”
Lynne clearly has a great appreciation for her animals. She goes on to describe their “night droppings,” which are produced very early in the morning and emerge soft and covered with a layer of mucus. “‘Droppings’ is not an accurate terms for these excretions, because they are not dropped. The rabbit twists around and eats them directly as they are excreted.” Sometimes these nuggets are recycled two, three and four times! Honeybun, who knew!? The hard, dry droppings commonly seen wherever a bunny has been are the true waste products and not re-ingested.
Of most interest to me, and likely to most spinners, is Lynne’s emphatic and extensive instruction on care of the fiber itself, from the method of harvesting to sorting and storage. Angora fiber is ready to be collected every 13 weeks, or four times a year, when a majority of the hair and down reaches 2 1/2 to 4 inches in length. Her preference is plucking, which entails grasping a section of the bunny’s skin in one hand and pulling a chunk of hair out with the other. Some angora keepers use a “plucking board,” to which the rabbit is tied and stretched during the procedure. I know the same is done when shearing alpacas, only on a much larger scale!
It sounds a lot worse than it is. Plucking is actually quite meditative and peaceful, especially when the animal is snuggled on your lap, and doesn’t seem to bother Honeybun a bit. Female rabbits even pluck themselves when making a nest ready for their young. Lynne confesses: “I had one white doe who would pluck herself stark naked – like a pink-skinned baby. The only hair left on her entire body was a little bit behind her neck and a meager line down her back where she couldn’t reach.”
Lynne is clearly a woman having fun with her animals and loving her craft. Her delight is infectious, and I can’t wait to curl up this winter with a pile of pluckings and my wheel flying in front of the fire.