Donna McGraw's gentle-natured fluff balls — her Angora rabbits — yield incredibly soft fiber for knitting, crocheting, or weaving, but they make wonderful companions, as well.
Donna raises English Angora rabbits on her farm, Tulamore Farm & Rabbitry, in Woodbine, Md., for their fiber, but she also loves showing and spending time with her furry companions.
"They make wonderful pets," Donna says. "The Angoras have pretty much been selectively bred for hundreds of years to be calm. That extra time that you spend with them grooming just makes them absolute ragdolls."
Donna competitively shows her rabbits when they're young and their coats are at their finest. A young rabbit's first coat is its "show coat," Donna says.
"From the time they are babies until they about a year old, that is their show coat," Donna says. "It's possible to bring rabbits to show in later coats, which I do occasionally, but they won't be quite as competitive."
Donna keeps her rabbit herd at a very manageable size so she can breed and develop quality animals with outstanding coats. She began showing rabbits several years ago when her daughters became active in 4-H.
"One of my all-time best show rabbits, I named after a song called Sweepstakes, Donna says. "She won two Best in Shows and a Reserve in Show and ended up with 11 Best of Breeds under stiff competition."
Once a rabbit has passed its "show coat" stage, it becomes one of Donna's fiber producers.
"When it's time for that rabbit to retire from showing, its fiber is clipped off with scissors, and it's perfectly usable and wonderful fiber," she says. "It grows back at about an inch a month."
Angoras molt naturally every four to six months, and at that time the fiber is naturally released, averaging about 4 inches in length. It can be collected by shearing, combing, or plucking. Some spinners prefer the naturally-released fiber, believing that it is superior to sheared fiber.
That's a matter of preference, Donna says.
"Some purists will only spin plucked fiber saying that it produces a better yarn," Donna says. "But I tend to spin sheared yarn."
However it's harvested, Angora is considered a luxury fiber. Most spinners blend their Angora fiber with other wools and fibers, however, because Angora is so fine and doesn't have the elasticity of other fibers.
INTERESTED IN ANGORA RABBITS?
Visit the National Angora
Rabbit Club's website at nationalangorarabbitbreeders.com
Blending doesn't diminish Angora; indeed it enhances both the Angora and the other fibers.
"A spinner can use 80 or even 90 percent Alpaca or other wool with Angora and still get that same (Angora) effect," Donna says. "My favorite blend is alpaca and Angora, because it makes a super soft, lightweight garment. You can still get that halo that comes up in Angora that is just beautiful."
Angora yarn, and Angora clothing, has a sort of "mist" of tiny flowing fibers called a halo that is the hallmark of the fiber's beauty. Angora sweaters to this day are considered "classic."
The interest in Angoras, Donna says, is surging.
"The thing about the Angoras is that they are a renewable resource; rabbits continually grow a coat," she says. "Their average life span is seven years, and you can get a lot of wool from a rabbit in that time."
They are not, however, a rabbit for everybody, because they do require a lot of care in grooming, she notes.
"But housing rabbits is easy," Donna says. "They require adequate space, clean water, the right feed; those are the basics for any livestock."
Colleen Creamer is a Tennessee-based writer.