Written and photographed by Sarah Lillegard
Driving around the neighborhoods of a large city, it’s hard to imagine that one of the little bungalow houses is a small-scale urban fiber farm. But, tucked into a street of large trees and wonderful afternoon sun is Bungalow Farm Angora. From this house and home, Erin Maclean has been raising German angora rabbits for the last 20 years, building up a herd of rabbits and a line of yarns that are carefully curated.
With jazz and classical music on the radio and a home filled with antiques, projects, and plants, Erin makes a space that is well lived in and loved. Around the dining room table are bags of roving and yarn from her rabbits. Two cats, Flora and Gandi, oversee the fiber stash as well as Erin’s main “farm” assistant: her dog Jet. In the backyard is Erin’s flower garden, her daughter’s succulents and a large white wall tent that houses the 12 does (female) and bucks (male) that make up Erin’s herd. Fans run the length of the tent’s ceiling, and a swamp cooler stands at its entrance. Inside, each rabbit has its own raised hutch with their shearing and wool production notes pinned to the outside. From this unassuming space, Erin manages a shearing schedule, determines breeding lines, and oversees the health and well being of her fiber herd.
Erin first started raising German angora rabbits after coming back to knitting following graduate school. Growing up, she raised livestock for 4-H including rabbits, so starting a fiber flock wasn’t a far stretch. Living in city, large fiber animals like sheep and alpaca were out of the question, so rabbits were the logical choice. Erin knew from the beginning that she wanted to work specifically with German angora rabbits. With three small children, Erin didn’t have the time to regularly groom and pluck rabbits. German angoras have synchronized coats so instead of shedding regularly, they start to lose their coats at ninety days. This synchronicity means their coats are a uniform length of 3.5”–4.5” and shearing can be scheduled instead of managed daily. Another perk for Erin in selecting the German breed was their food to wool ratio, which is 3x higher than other angora breeds, meaning they eat the same amount of food but produce more wool.
These breed attributes that appealed to Erin have a known and recent history: over seventy years ago, angora breeders in Germany partnered with the Federal Agriculture Research Center to improve the wool production of their rabbits. Their specific focus on breed development leads to the traits now evident in the German angoras: docility, body form like “a loaf of bread,” high wool yield and wool that is silky, not cottony in texture. In the 1980s, these German angoras were imported to North America. The response was impressive, and in 1987 the International Association of German Angora Rabbit Breeders (IAGARB) was founded. It was through these imports and the breeders association that Erin bought the rabbits that would become the foundation of her herd.
As Erin describes it, “We were lucky that the Germans did a lot of the hard work for us. We still had to continue it, but we took lessons from them on how to get from A to B.” Following in the footsteps of the breed’s development, Erin is meticulous about tracking her rabbits. Maintaining both written and digital records, she verifies that her rabbits are consistent with the IAGARB breed standards and charts how their wool production changes as they age. But all of this data doesn’t overshadow the fact that she can pick up a doe, recite its age, and share how all of its female offspring have the same unusual trait: ten teats.
When it comes time to shear one of her rabbits, Erin sets up a workstation in her breakfast nook with windows to her back and an air conditioner above. Shearing is a considerate and careful process with the rabbit’s comfort being key. In the summer, temperatures can get dangerously warm so Erin shears in the morning with that air conditioner on. The summer heat also means shearing happens every 30 days instead of the standard 90. While this shortened growth window decreases the length of the coat, it’s a small sacrifice for the comfort of the animals. As Erin puts it, “Rabbits can tolerate cold much more than they can tolerate heat, but there are limits at both ends.” So with the climate, summer is the busiest season for Bungalow Farm.
For shearing, Erin uses a small, electric handheld clipper and scissors. With a micron count ranging from 16–18, finding clippers that can handle such fine wool is difficult. The shearing starts that the top of the rabbit’s head and works down flattening the skin and taking about 20 minutes total. As Erin shears, she grades the wool into two baskets: one for prime (at least 2.5” in length) and one for seconds/thirds (shorter and/or inconsistent texture). Most of the prime wool comes from the belly, back, and bib (chest). In order for the rabbit to fit the German angora breed standards, it needs to produce at least 325 grams of wool. As Erin finishes shearing the doe on her lap, she weighs the wool and records it in correlation to the rabbit. As a four-year-old doe, this rabbit’s wool weighs in at 40 grams of seconds and thirds, 309 grams of prime.
Like other types of wool and fiber, that angora has to get sent to a mill for processing. Since it’s hard to find mills that take such fine wool, IAGARB started a nation-wide yarn cooperative around 2003. Combining members and wool yields, the co-op created a collective buying power which helped save mill costs as well as the amount of loss due to “fly” (when nearly weightless fibers escape on air currents during the mill process). Since everyone’s wool was blended, all co-op members had to follow consistent guidelines to maintain the quality of the yarn. Member would ship their wool to a woman in Michigan who would grade and deliver it to Zeilinger Wool Mill. After years of running wool through the co-op, members retired, as did the mill owners. Erin now gets her wool processed through Aroostook Fiber Works in Northern Maine. Her current yarns, rovings, knitting kits, and felting kits include a Cormo/Angora pencil roving, a yarn blended with fleeces from Sally Fox, and a new fingering-weight version of her Blizzard line of yarn. As she continues to play with blends, Erin is moving in the direction of sourcing more of the sheep wool locally taking into consideration both the quality and costs. She wants to maintain a high-quality yarn with the lovely bloom angora wool is known for. When asked what keeps her inspired and motivated after years of working with her herd, Erin says, “They are great animals. They are fun. They all have personalities. I like the fiber end of it. I like the animal husbandry. It’s always challenging. You’ve never seen it all. There is always something new and different that comes up.”
Bungalow Angora Farm products can be found at Rumpelstiltskin Yarn Store where Erin also teaches drop spindle and wheel spinning classes. Wool products can also be found online at bungalowfarm.com. And on Saturday, November 16th, Erin will demonstrate angora rabbit shearing at the 2019 Wool & Fine Fiber Symposium: gather with the Fibershed community from 12:30-2:30 outside the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station to observe and explore free, hands-on demonstrations from shearing to felting, natural dyes and mending, and much more (no ticket necessary).