When people think of the wool in their clothes, they tend to think of herds of sheep roaming hilly pastures green. However, should you venture down from the high ground, past the shepherds' huts and stop to examine the ground underneath, you may well find the unexpected home of the finest wool used in clothing today - the Angora rabbit.
According to legend, the Angora rabbit originated centuries ago in the Turkish capital of Ankara, its wool used to create fine, flowing shawls for the more fashionable ladies of the city. So fashionable were these ladies in fact, that they caught the eye of passing French sailors who, ever the romantics, decided to take the Angora rabbit back to their homeland. Presumably to remind them of these long lost loves.
Of course the French disagree vehemently with this story, steadfast in the belief that Angora rabbits were a natural product of the Gaelic woodlands. But regardless of who you believe, one thing’s for sure - the Angora rabbit became extremely prized throughout Europe, subsequently exploding in popularity over the following centuries. Nowadays there are five different breeds of Angora; the French, German, English, Satin and Giant rabbit. However in the battle of the wool there is only one winner: the German Angora, famed for its extremely soft, pure white fur. It’s this kind that’s used commercially today.
Where it all begins
Were you to sail west from the small Mexican coastal village of La Mision you’d find yourself at sea for quite a while. In fact the path between this quaint outpost and the next piece of land spans the entire Pacific ocean. When you emerged from the decks, months later, you’d find yourself gently floating into the harbour of Hangzhou, the uninterrupted sea-breeze providing a welcome oasis of clean in the modernist industrial landscape of post-revolutionary China.
Flanked by a landscape of rolling green hills and traditional Chinese willow, Hangzhou has been a favourite of poets, artists and philosophers as far back as the 9th century. Indeed, the pagodas lining the famous west lake could well be straight from a dynasty painting, sitting as motionlessly as the water beside them. Head an hour into these hills and you’d find yourself in the small village of Dongqiaozhen, where you’d be greeted by the open arms and beaming smile of Mrs Xú - supplier of Angora wool to Archie Foal.
Prior to talking about Xú’s small enterprise, it’s important to address the fact that the angora industry has a dark and disturbing past. Before a widely publicised PETA campaign in 2013, larger scale rabbit mills could be found across China, feeding demand from high street fashion chains in the west. The public, many of whom assumed angora was a synthetic fibre, were outraged by undercover videos of workers brutally plucking the fur from rabbits and the lack of care shown by these operators.
Indeed, the backlash against angora products was unprecedented. Well known chains such as H&M, GAP and Uniqlo pulled their stock, fearful of the public spotlight being shone towards them. Overnight the annual exports of Chinese angora collapsed - down 81 percent from $23 million in 2010 to a measly $4.3 million five years later. However, rather than disappear altogether, the angora industry was forced to radically reinvent itself - scrambling to cater to high-end luxury fashion through the production of high quality, ethical angora.
Nowadays, the angora industry is generally a much smaller, family affair – Xú is is a classic example. Because the fur of the angora is so fine, rabbits each get their own generous hutch, cleaned daily in order to prevent any of their fur from becoming matted or dirty. For Xú, her father and their small team, the healthiest rabbits produce the healthiest, highest quality coats. It’s therefore a full-time job to take care of her bunnies; watering and feeding them is a daily routine, while they are clipped exactly every seventy-two days. This last part is vital, not just in terms of producing the best wool fibres, but in keeping the rabbits healthy - if their hair gets too long they can ingest and choke on it, an unpleasant fate called ‘wool block’. Needless to say for the Xú’s, her fate irrevocably linked to those of her herd, this is the worst scenario possible.
Mrs Xu and her father share a pose with an angora ready to be clipped
Mrs Xú has turned clipping day into an art form. With a pair of hand-shears and surprisingly deft hand she typically takes only five minutes to get the fur she needs, causing no discomfort to the rabbit in doing so. While this is important in terms of welfare, it’s also vital for her business. Just like humans, unnecessary stress can trigger hair loss and reduce the quality of her fibres. In a country where there are estimated to be over 50 million Angoras, the only way for Xú to make a living is to strive for the highest quality - as with the best things, it takes time, dedication and knowledge. There are no shortcuts in Dongqiaozhen.
Dal Grande’s rules of rabbit
For Michael Dal Grande, sourcer of fibres for Archie Foal, ethics was the most important aspect in the hunt for the best angora wool. It’s why he created his own certification, based on the strongest welfare code he could find; the British DEFRA standards, and started applying them to producers like Xú in China. Only those that could first prove their herd was healthy, happy and treated respectfully would catch the eye of Michael. He called the fibre produced by these certified farms “Caregora”, condensing its principles into five key pillars:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst: Through free access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
- Freedom from discomfort: By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease: By keeping clean hygienic conditions and rapidly diagnosing and treating illnesses.
- Freedom to express normal behaviour: By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
- Freedom from fear and distress: By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
The last piece in the puzzle is traceability and transparency. When Caregora is used, it can always be traced back all the way to its roots. After all, Michael is proud of the product he finds, it’d be a shame to hide it behind a curtain of secrecy.
Spinning the wool
Once enough wool has been produced, it’s passed from Michael’s company Naturfasern (literally translating to ‘Natural fibres’), to the oldest yarn spinners in the whole of the UK, Yorkshire based Z. Hinchcliffe and Sons.
Although the original Z. Hinchcliffe (Zaccheus in case you were wondering) died in 1894, his legacy is still alive today; indeed the company has subsequently moved through seven generations of Hinchcliffe ownership. Using over 200 years of expertise, they first comb and clean the fibres before sending it on a process that relaxes and straightens them post-shipping. After being passed through a series of extremely technical processes, mainly involving lots of spinning wheels, the ply produced is blended with 75% merino fibre to produce the blend of Yarn just right for the Great British Autumn.
The reason that very few products contain 100% angora is simple – it’s just too good at keeping people warm. Because of its super light and airy nature, it retains heat better than virtually every other natural fibre preceding it. However, the proportion of angora in the Archie Foal blend is at just the right level to make use of its properties without fraying or overheating its wearer.
When Dal Grande talks about the differences between angora and other wools he mentions that “wearing angora next to the skin has a muscle activating and pain easing function due to its electrostatic charge.” This is actually a result of the smoothness of the fibres and leads to an almost silky feel while wearing it. Of course, it doesn’t look half bad either.
Putting it all together
After finding the fibres and spinning them there’s one important step left - actually turning a ball of Yarn into a stunning piece of knitwear. This takes place in a small family run workshop in the town of Long Eaton. Much like the Attenborough nature reserve two miles east, some things are better left untouched – the traditional handiwork used in the Tove Angora jumper is just one of them. After being carefully inspected and approved by Archie Foal they can finally be deemed worthy of the famous label, and make their way down to our boutique - in the heart of fabulous Fulham.
Doing the Angora justice
The beauty of angora is that it’s unrivaled in its feel or performance. In fact, it’s so warm that the airforce used it to create bomber jackets before the waterproof properties of nylon became apparent. With this is mind, the Tove jumper is perfect as the ultimate autumn and winter accessory - whether paired with a full-length greatcoat, or worn simply by itself. It’s also the ideal partner for a cosy night in front of the flames - or out in the garden, looking for rabbits…