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the rabbit

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Everything I own -- my clothes, my furniture, and a good part of my respiratory tract -- is made with angora. That's because I share my home with a 4-pound angora rabbit. He was originally purchased in a fit of misplaced longing for my kids, who'd gone off to college, and a conviction that I'd one day learn to spin. Why not get a utility pet, I figured -- someone to love, and to make sweaters out of? What could be bad?

I picked the handsomest lilac puffball of the litter, brought him home, and named him Benzo [short for benzodiazepines, a class of tranquilizers] because he calmed me down. My husband nicknamed him TLC, for Tastes Like Chicken. [Can you say gender gap?] "Sure he's cute," Don said, "but what does he do?

It's true, he doesn't greet you at the front door, doesn't come when he's called, doesn't play Frisbee. He has two expressions -- blank, and terror.  It's probably fair to say that Benzo is dumber than a carrot. But I don't care. He's a prince of a bunny. He's the bunny by which all other bunnies are measured. I adore him.

Spinning Clouds

Don't worry -- no bunnies are harmed in the harvesting of angora fiber. When a rabbit's coat is ripe for harvesting, you can pluck it by the handful without causing any pain -- there's a new coat coming in underneath, so it's ready to release.

Editor's note: November 27/13
It has come to our attention that in some factories, Angora rabbits are plucked alive, the same way feathers are removed from a dead chicken. This causes pain beyond bearing to the rabbit and they scream -- something rabbits only do when their lives are threatened. Other methods of harvesting rabbit fur include trussing their legs so they don't move while the fur is shaved. The shaving causes no pain, but the trussing, in this editor's opinion, is inhumane and cruel. Please seek out information on how any angora you wish to buy was harvested and only support angora naturally shed or gently shaved from an un-stressed rabbit. Thank you.

Bagging it is another story. The fiber is charged with enough static electricity to power a lawnmower. It clings to the sides of the bag and suspends itself in midair until it lands on the closest pair of eyebrows...or corneas.  Once captured, however, it's ready to be spun without cleaning or carding.

Spinning angora is not for beginners, I've learned. The fiber is fine and slippery and requires a practiced hand to feed into the spinning wheel at just the right tension. Held too loose,  the yarn twists around on itself, creating hopeless knots that gum up the works. Held too tightly, the yarn spins thin and breakable. What you're really aiming for is a gentle twist that brings out the soft, airy quality of the fiber and allows plenty of loft.

While the hands control the tension, the feet are busy pedaling, determining the speed with which the yarn is twisted. An experienced spinner can get a lovely rhythm going, hands and feet working together in hypnotic motion.

Because angora is so fine, the fiber traps pockets of air, making it many times warmer than sheep's wool. It's so warm, in fact, that a garment of 100% angora would be too stifling to wear. To compensate, many knitters reserve angora for decorative accents, or knit it loosely to give it room to breathe. Loose knitting also allows the fibers to blossom into that signature angora "halo," which becomes more pronounced with wear [no need for fancy stitches here -- they won't show!]

Angora has a nice crimp, but no spring or memory.  In this regard, it is more like working with cotton or silk. Or clouds, really. If it were any softer, you would hardly know it's there.

Really, he's better than any plush toy I ever had as a kid. He eats, he poops [they're dry and odorless!], and he licks my nose when I pet him. Nobody can touch him when it comes to shredding newspaper. And when he runs out of food he picks up his bowl and scrapes it along the side of his cage, like a prisoner calling the warden. What more could you ask?

I have to admit he's high maintenance. Even though he's litter trained and very good about not chewing the furniture [unlike some other animals who will remain nameless], I spend a ridiculous amount of time taking care of him. It takes 2 hours to harvest his coat, which happens every month or two, and he needs brushing daily.

Sometimes Don helps. One day when we were busy combing out knots – I took the head, he took the tail – I asked, “Do you think other couples do this together?”
“I'm sure they do,” he assured me, “in institutions.”

Benzo doesn't mind the sarcasm. He doesn't even seem to mind the marathon grooming sessions, or at least he tolerates them in good humor. Against all instincts, he's learned to trust me. He still hyperventilates every time I pick him up, and if his coat is short I can see his little heart beating right through his paper-thin skin. But once he's caught, he surrenders to my hand, the brush. He nuzzles up against me and tucks his head under my chin. He makes a little tooth-clicking purr, and eventually even kicks his hind legs out behind him, relaxed and sprawled out like a furry sphinx.

Even my husband has succumbed to his charms. Benzo knows Don's the go-to guy for a game of chase-tag [initiated by nudging Don's ankle], a handout of raisins or an extended session of pet-the-bunny.

Do I need to tell you that I still haven't learned to spin? I've long since lost interest in collecting fiber, and the one scarf I knit from Benzo hair sheds and gets up my nose and makes me sneeze. My fantasies of small-scale shepherding must have gotten sucked up the vacuum cleaner along with the hairballs that routinely clog its motor. So with any luck I'm looking at another 6 or 7 years of fruitless grooming and epic lint. And I wouldn't have it any other way. What's a few hairballs when you're in love?




Amy Sunshine is a New Jersey-based writer and a former editor of Parents Magazine.