Looks like it's the wooly season.
I recently wrote about Edith Fisher, who has alpacas on her Wooly Works Farm and sells alpaca fiber and products at her Wooly Works Knit Shop in downtown Colorado Springs. That led me to Woodlake Woolies in Black Forest, where Sharon Dalrymple raises angora bunnies, spins fiber and teaches "the fiber arts." Some of her work can be found at Wooly Works.
The long-haired angora rabbits are known for their wool. Dalrymple got her first two in 1997 after taking up spinning. She's had other fiber animals, including alpacas and goats, "but through these past almost 20 years, I've basically just stuck with the rabbits," she said.
There are many reasons why rabbits have ruled, she said. They, of course, don't need as much space as larger animals. Also, "there's not really any fiber preparation needed to clean their fiber before you're able to use it. I literally can spin directly from the rabbit sitting in my lap and make yarn that way."
Dalrymple demonstrated, with Daisy the rabbit sitting peacefully in her lap as she operated the spinning machine. That's not the typical method for harvesting fiber, however. The rabbits shed, or blow their coats, every 12 weeks; at that time, Dalrymple uses a dog comb to loosen the fur, then hand plucks.
"You're not hurting the rabbits," she said. The coat gets hot and itchy, "so at the end of that 12 weeks they're ready to get that off them."
Daisy is an English angora. "They have all the hair on their faces; they're the ones that look like little ewoks," Dalrymple said. She raises and sells other types of angoras as well.
"It's kind of like the flavor of the month sometimes in what people are looking for," she said. "Right now it seems to be English rabbits that everyone is looking for; last year it was French."
Dalrymple said she's "very selective" in her breedings. "My rabbits are bred for their color, for the quality of their fiber and also, hopefully, for their temperament."
The angoras make great pets, she said; she recommends the bucks, or boys, as they tend to be less high-strung than the does. Whether boy or girl, though, they require more care than the short-haired bunnies you'll typically find in pet stores.
"I want to make sure they're going to good homes and that people are educated in what they're taking on," Dalrymple said. Even if you're not interested in using the hair, angora rabbits should be groomed regularly so their fur doesn't become matted. Long-haired rabbits also have more issues with wool block. It's equivalent to a hairball with cats and has the same cause - from cleaning themselves by licking.
"Rabbits are like cats in that they clean themselves all the time," Dalrymple said. But unlike cats, rabbits can't vomit to eliminate a hairball, which can block the digestive system.
"It is very devastating and can come in almost the blink of an eye," she said. Proper diet and other steps can help prevent the problem.
Dalrymple has had up to 100 rabbits at one time; she now has a more manageable 35 or so.
All that combing and plucking has taken a toll, though; she's had four surgeries on her right hand because of grooming over the years.
"One thing I learned from physical therapy after surgery is I was gripping the grooming comb way too hard," she said. "It's just a natural response when tugging; you don't know how hard you are holding things."
She finds spinning the fiber much more relaxing.
"There are nights where I'll actually put myself to sleep; it's just that rhythmic and soothing to do," she said.