One woman’s life in fur

05/31/2012

For Allison Arnold, the secret to self sufficiency lies in one fuzzy word: Angora. The Woodacre farmer, who has been surrounded by rabbits for as long as she can remember, spins the fur of her seven-plus angora rabbits into high-end yarns. She barters their pelts and feeds them to her family of four. She is also part of the Fibershed Project, which connects and promotes Marin County producers and artisans in a bioregionally-based and green supply chain.

When Ms. Arnold came to West Marin two years ago from Portland, Oregon, where she grew up on a two-acre farm, her favorite breed came with her. With the money she earns selling wool she funds her rabbits and goats, whose milk she uses to barter for eggs, vegetables and meat from neighbors. And in her spare time she teaches school children about angoras. Along with Fibershed’s founder, Rebecca Burgess, Ms. Arnold meets elementary students at various farms in the Bay Area, where she teaches them to handle, sheer and spin wool. “It’s great for kids to feel [the fur] and see it turn into clothes right before their eyes,” she said. Introducing them to her angoras teaches the students “just how useful animals can be, and how you can produce things for yourself. That’s where their clothes come from. It’s good for [children] to make that connection.”

Ms. Arnold wasn’t always a fan of these oversized bunnies. “When I was young I didn’t like angoras because they looked too hard to maintain,” she said. Whenever she saw the rabbits at breeder shows she would try to imagine owning one, and she’d think to herself, “No way!” Years later, while working as a vet technician, a doctor she knew suggested she get one.

“I loved it,” Ms. Arnold said of her first bunny. “[The doctor] would sew with the wool that I threaded from my angora.” White German, colorful French, and silky satin rabbits—it wasn’t long before she was raising almost a dozen. A mix of the breeds now live in her rustic San Geronimo Valley backyard—seven adults, and fluctuating litters of up to 20 babies at a time.

Ms. Arnold shears her angoras every three months. It’s a grueling cycle for some, but for a woman in the business of wool, it’s perfect. “I think every spinner and knitter should have an angora,” she said. “One shearing will give you up to nine ounces of fur. That’s enough for two beanies, some leg warmers, and a scarf.” Ms. Arnold’s angoras produce an average of three skeins each, every three months. She sells a skein for $20 an ounce and up, and earns 70 percent of what she sells on the Fibershed marketplace—a percentage much higher than what a retailer would pay her, at 50 percent.

While the price of her wool might seem high, as scarce as angora fur is, it’s worth every penny. “When you buy yarn at a store and it contains angora, you’re buying it from China,” she said, explaining that there are no large domestic angora producers. “What I sell is pure angora. If you buy commercial it probably contains alpaca hair.”

In order to get the texture, colors and quantity of wool she wants, Ms. Arnold has to get creative with her breeding. “Germans, which have the most fur, only come in white,” she said. “I cross it with satins and French in order to give some extra color.” Satin-German hybrids, which provide lots of fur and finer quality, are her favorite.

Of all the necessary chores for the upkeep of her rabbits, breeding—perhaps not surprisingly—is the easiest. Female rabbits go into heat as soon as they are in contact with males, so there are no breeding seasons. Still, sessions can be a little unpredictable. At the end of any successful breeding, which Ms. Arnold said usually takes about 18 seconds, the male rabbit faints.

“One time, while I was trying to breed my male German hybrid, Jack, with a female, Cinnamon, the male rabbit finished before I could even put him down into the cage,” she recalled. He fainted and fell to the ground.

For every new litter she raises, Ms. Arnold seeks homes for her rabbits—a difficult task. “Why do you want an angora?” is the first question she’ll ask a potential buyer. “If someone tells me it’s because they want a pet, I tell them to go somewhere else,” she said. “They have to be spinners or knitters.”

If Ms. Arnold doesn’t find suitable homes for the rabbits by the time they are six months old, she utilizes them the best way she knows how—by eating them. “A lot of people don’t like to hear about this, but it’s part of how I make use of the animals and remain self sufficient,” she said. “I’d rather make another use of them than let them go to a home that won’t take care of them.”

Anyone interested in learning more about Allison Arnold’s angoras may call (415) 251.1187 or email allyd.arnold@gmail.com.