What Is Angora and How Is It Made?

Mass production has led to animal cruelty, but ethically made angora is possible.

skeins of angora wool
Skeins of angora wool.

valeriadiroma / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Angora refers to the long hair harvested from an Angora rabbit, which is spun into a soft, fluffy yarn that's used for knitting clothes and accessories and weaving luxurious textiles. Angora is also the name of a goat breed that produces mohair wool, another high-end fiber. However, for the purposes of this article, angora will refer only to the rabbit-sourced fiber.

A Brief History of Angora

According to the National Angora Rabbit Breeders Club (NARBC), Europeans first discovered the Angora rabbit when some sailors pulled into a Turkish port of the same name in 1723. They were so impressed by the beautiful silky scarves worn by local women that they took some rabbits back to France. A reference to the rabbit first appears in the French Encyclopedia of 1765. Textile School says angora didn't become popular in North America until the 20th century, when small cottage breeders and spinners popularized it.

spinning Angora wool in garden
A woman spins wool from Angora rabbits in her garden in 1930. Fox Photos / Getty Images 

Since then, breeders, knitters, weavers, and fashionistas the world over have fallen in love with angora, a thin natural fiber known for its softness, fluffiness (also called a "halo" by knitters), and extreme warmth that is six times warmer than wool, caused by its hollow core. Fabrics made with angora tend to "bloom" or fluff up over time, which further increases warmth and elegant appearance.

How Is Angora Made?

Angora is harvested from rabbits that are kept in captivity. There are four types of Angora rabbits recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association: English, French, Giant, and Satin. Other breeds also exist, such as the German Angora rabbit, which is common. Each breed produces different textured and colored hair.

Angora rabbits must be groomed weekly to prevent hair from matting and are sheared fully every 3 to 4 months. The NARBC says that, when shearing is done properly, it does not harm the animal: "The wool is ready to shed and removing it will help keep the rabbit in good condition." A rabbit can also be plucked, instead of sheared, which means the molted hair is gently pulled off the animal. German Angora rabbits do not molt, so they must be sheared. 

English, French, and Satin rabbits typically produce less than 1 pound of fur annually, while Giants can produce up to 2.5 pounds. The plucked or sheared hair is then spun into yarn. Because it is so light and thin, it has to be blended with sheep's wool or another soft wool, such as lambswool or cashmere, to avoid unraveling. Only then can it be woven into fabric. 

Since angora is an all-natural, animal-sourced fiber, it fully biodegrades at the end of its life cycle, releasing nutrients back into the ground. It does not shed plastic microfibers into the environment as its synthetic counterparts do. If it was dyed using heavy metals or other toxic chemicals, these would be released into the natural environment, causing contamination.

Impact on Animals

Angora production is controversial because many people do not think animals should be kept for their coats; it's worth noting, however, that these long-haired rabbits can die from a problem called "woodblock" if not sheared regularly. They ingest their own hair and it blocks their digestive tracts, and unlike cats, they are cannot pass it independently. They rely on regular grooming and shearing to stay healthy.

The most significant issue with angora is cruelty brought on by mass production. In 2013, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released video footage (warning: graphic footage) from China that showed Angora rabbits with their front and back paws tied and hair being ripped out aggressively. The rabbits were kept in cramped cages and slaughtered after three years. As of 2013, China had 50 million Angora rabbits in captivity generating 90 percent of the world's annual angora crop.

This horrific video led many fashion brands to renounce angora completely, with H&M deciding to "permanently cease the production of angora products" in December 2013. The problem is not so much angora itself as it is mass production, and that's a difficult challenge for any conscientious brand to surmount. As Tansy Hoskins wrote for the Guardian at the time, "Harvesting angora without harming rabbits is a slow labor of love incompatible with industrial capitalism." If rabbits are to be treated well, then the resulting fabric would have to be scarce and precious, not a cheaply produced material found in fast fashion stores.

What Can We Do?

It is possible to find ethically produced angora, but shoppers must be diligent about researching the supply chain. Buy from brands that care deeply about the welfare of the animals producing it, or do your own digging for domestic suppliers in North America and Europe, where animal welfare standards are more rigorous than in China.