Fiber Fest Takes You From Fur To Knits

Aug 14, 2014

Some people knit. Others raise llamas, gather their wool, dye it, spin it and then knit.

And some do all of that but with goats, sheep or alpacas. All of these possibilities – and more – are on display at the Michigan Fiber Festival this weekend at the Allegan County fairgrounds.

Lynda Jeltema lives near Wayland. Her reddish, year-old angora rabbit, Lizzy, is one about two feet long. "It’s their hair that makes them look so big. It’s the volume," says Jeltema.

Lizzy is one of several rabbits who will make the trip with Jeltema to the Michigan Fiber Festival. To pet her is to understand what makes angora special.

"They have a very very fine fiber, they’re very soft, they’re very warm fiber," says Jeltema. "The fiber blends well with all the other wools, which is the llama, the sheep, alpaca, pygora." 

Pygoras are a type of goat.

Jeltema first raised rabbits as a kid. She began her current herd when she wanted to learn to spin – and then she met some bunnies at a fiber show.

"And I thought, you know, I don’t have property for sheep, or goats or llamas or alpacas, but I do have room for a rabbit," she says. "So I got the rabbit and the fiber out of it in the same deal, I couldn’t ask for anything better."

Now she keeps 17 about grown rabbits at any time – angoras and a few other breeds. And right now she’s got just as many babies. The cages run the length of her enclosed front porch, where Jeltema runs fans to keep them cool.

"I get my warm fuzzies from them, when I get home from work," she says. "I come out here, they all have different personalities, some come to the door and they want to be petted and scratched, and others come to the door, sniff your hand and that’s a good enough greeting for them." 

When an angora rabbit’s hair reaches about four inches, Jeltema combs it out and prepares it for spinning. The fiber is less grippy than sheep’s wool. That makes it a challenge to spin, but Jeltema says she got the hang of it in about half a year.

She started on a drop spindle. The design is simple: it’s a post with a disk on one end. On top of the disk is a hook.

"Usually the coarser the wool, the heavier the spindle. And what you do is you take – this is considered a leader line, it’s just something that hangs off the top of the spindle," Jeltema says.

The unspun fibers pass under the hook, then over the edge of the disk to the post, ready to be twisted into yarn. You just give it a spin – and let that spin right up the wool.

One of her finished pieces is an airy crocheted shawl, made with hair from her first rabbit. It’s big enough to wrap around your shoulders more than once.

"You only get 2-3 ounces at a time, and so I saved up his hair and it took me about 18 months to finish it," Jeltema says. "But it’s very very soft and very very warm, even though you see holes in it. Angora is extremely warm, you can get overheated very fast."

What hair she doesn’t use herself, she sometimes sells at fiber shows.

"We have people that come into the booths and touch it and go, ‘Oh, I’ve got to have this,’ even though they’ve never spun it before," says Jeltema.

Jeltema will have some rabbits for sale this weekend. She often follows up with buyers, she says, to make sure the bunnies are doing well. And she’s also looking forward to Saturday’s angora rabbit competition. 

The festival features several other kinds of animals as well, most of them bigger with fewer toes. From the sheep shearing demos to the many vendors’ booths, Jeltema says visitors look forward to several days of the best kind of sensory overload.

"If you love textures, smells, the color, it’s all there, it’s just fantastic," she says. "It’s a dream."

After the Michigan Fiber Festival wraps up, Jeltema says she hopes to make it to a rabbit show or two before the next big event. That’s Ann Arbor’s fall Fiber Expo, held in October.