When visitors drive up to our Northern California foothill farm, they immediately notice the fluffy, long-horned beasties dotted all over our pastures. If they have never met us before, these visitors will always tell us how they love seeing our beautiful “sheep” and ask what we do with their wool.
I smile and take a deep breath, because this is where the fun starts.
I enjoy nothing more than sharing that we raise Angora goats as opposed to sheep, and they produce mohair (like the suit) as opposed to wool. The most interesting part? Nearly everyone we talk to has no idea that goats can produce natural fibers!
The mistake is easy to make. After all, the sheep-sized animals look all squishy and pillow-like. In fact, Angoras aren’t the only goats that offer beautiful, luxurious fiber.
On behalf of fiber goat breeders everywhere, when it comes to natural fibers, we’ve got a goat for that!
Why Natural Animal Fibers?
No matter how many times humans attempt to synthetically duplicate the strength, comfort and durability of animal fibers, fiber artisans and conscientious folks everywhere find themselves drawn to the ones only nature can provide. It’s not surprising, as it’s a tall order to fill. Consider the following compelling reasons to reach for natural fibers instead of their synthetic counterparts.
They’re renewable, biodegradable & ethical.
All natural fibers are biodegradable and fully compostable, while acrylics and other synthetic materials aren’t.
Fiber goats—just like sheep, alpacas, etc.—grow a new coat every year. Keepers need to sheer these fibers from the animals to keep them healthy.
Savvy clothing designers ignore the misinformation stating otherwise. They’re aware of the benefits of utilizing natural fibers and continue to purchase materials from farms with ethical husbandry practices.
They’re insulating & flame-resistant.
Natural fibers are almost magical when it comes to insulation. Not only will these fibers keep you warmer in cold weather than acrylic, but they have an added virtue: They “breathe.”
What this means is the fiber absorbs perspiration and wicks it away from the skin and into the air.
Goat fibers, wool, alpaca and Angora rabbit fiber are all inherently flame-resistant. Not only do they have a high ignition rate (570 to 600 degrees Celsius), but when they do ignite, they tend to smolder and self-extinguish rather than supporting the flame.
And when these fibers do burn, they don’t melt or stick to the skin. They also produce less smoke and toxic gas than synthetic materials.
They present an opportunity to know your fiber source.
As a consumer, you can literally choose the farm for your fiber, yarn or textile purchase. There are infinite numbers of fiber and farms to peruse online or in person. You will know about the family you are supporting, their specific husbandry practices and, perhaps, even the specific animal it came from.
You may also want to try your hand at keeping and producing your own fiber—truly the ultimate organic and sustainable practice.
Another fun fact
Often people believe that they are allergic to animal fibers because they react to clothing purchased from large retailers.
Many times, when they try wearing a product purchased directly from farm to consumer, they find that their skin doesn’t react. This is because they are actually allergic (or reacting) to the chemicals that are used to treat the wool and other fibers.
Fiber Goat Types
Let’s take a look at a few breeds of fiber-producing goats and the products of their coats.
If you’re interested in some serious fiber production, Angora goats have you covered. They are the most efficient fiber-producing animals in the world.
Angora fiber is called “mohair,” and there isn’t another animal breed in the world that produces it. Mohair is distinctive and often referred to as the “diamond fiber.” Its strength, durability, brilliant luster and light-reflecting properties are nothing short of elegant.
Once upon a time, mohair only came in one color: white. Historically, a kid that was born any other color was undesirable and immediately culled from the herd.
Thankfully, the fiber artists of today see the true beauty in mohair natural colors. These include browns, red, fawn, gray and black.
In 1999, colored Angora goats officially came into their own with the establishment of The Colored Angora Goat Breeders Association. Now, keepers raise colored Angoras alongside our classic, beautiful whites.
The dazzling luster and slippery-silky feel of mohair is due to its unique fiber scales, which are smoother, thinner and larger than sheep wool.
Angora goats have grease (or yolk) that coats the fiber, which protects it from the elements and keeps the fiber deliciously soft and luminous. There are varying degrees of grease in a fleece depending on the animal. A simple washing reveals the brilliant fiber underneath.
Animal fiber classifications are labeled according to micron count, from very fine to coarse. Fiber classing systems vary depending on who you talk to and the country that you live in. Everyone agrees, though, that mohair can be as low as 21 microns (or below), which is defined as superkid, all the way to the coarse 39 microns of an aged adult.
And while mohair fibers themselves are elastic in their own right (they will snap back into place if stretched), they lack the amount of spring-back crimp properties wool has.
On one hand, this allows mohair to act like silk and offers excellent drape. On the other hand, if the knitter is using 100 percent mohair yarn, this must be considered while knitting the pattern.
Mohair resists felting better than sheep’s wool but can be coaxed into it if need be, especially if a little wool is blended into it. If you enjoy dyeing fiber, Mohair takes to it like nothing else. We have excellent success with using botanical dyes.
Angora goats are typically shorn twice a year, and an adult goat can produce upwards of 10 to 20 pounds of mohair. They stand 36 to 48 inches tall, respectively.
As much as I love our Angoras, these goats aren’t the only choice when it comes to gorgeous fiber. Other breeds may not produce in the high numbers Angoras do, but there’s a fiber goat for everyone!
Pygora goats were developed in the late 1970s by crossing Angora goats registered with the American Angora Goat Association (AAGBA) with adorable pygmy goats (smallest of the meat breeds) registered with the National Pygmy Goat Association (NPGA). In order to register a Pygora goat with the Pygora Breeders Association (PBA), they can’t be more that 75 percent of either parent breed.
These naturally horned goats can enter a show ring either with or without horns. Most breeders choose to disbud, but the decision is left to personal preference.
Pygoras come in an array of lovely colors, including white, brown, black, gray and caramel. It’s not unusual for a goat that is determined to be one color to actually change color during another time of the year. Fleeces may be lighter while “in fleece” (loaded with their downy undercoat) and darker when they are not in fleece.
In general, Pygoras have a dual-coated fleece, consisting of fine undercoat fibers and coarser guard hairs. Yarn made from a fleece that isn’t dehaired—when guard hairs are removed from the down—won’t be next-to-the-skin soft. You may be able to get away without dehairing if you have a very fine type A fleece (very Angora-like—see later in this article).
Generally speaking, though, it’s necessary to dehair Pygora in order to take advantage of the soft undercoat. This can be done by a commercial dehairing machine at a fiber mill, or it can be done by hand using carders or mini combs.
The PBA describes three Pygora fiber types. While each type has different characteristics, none of them is better than another; each has its place in use.
This silky, lustrous fiber hangs in ringlets up to 6 inches long off the goat. It’s usually less than 28 microns. Type A fiber produces about 3 pounds of fiber and is closest in character to the mohair found on Angora goats.
This curly, soft and fine fiber (less than 24 microns) grows to about 3 to 6 inches long. Three fiber types together make up a cashmere-mohair combo: a coarse/stiff guard hair; a fine, silky guard hair; and the downy undercoat. Type B Pygora goats produce about 1 pound of fiber per year.
The finest of the three, this fiber, often considered true cashmere, measures less than 18.5 microns. Its guard hair is quite coarse, and there’s good separation between the guard hairs and the down.
Type C Pygora goats may produce as little as 8 ounces a year of this unbelievably soft fiber.
The Nigora is the first breed in the U.S. that was specifically bred as a fiber-producing dairy goat. They are perfect for small farms and those who are looking for a compact goat that satisfies several purposes: milk, fiber and companionship. Fiber production for Nigora goats is fairly comparable to that of Pygoras.
The cross-breeding of Angora goats with Nigerian Dwarfs created Nigora goats. Today, they may carry the bloodlines of mini Swiss-type dairy goat breeds and even Pygoras, as well. Nigora goats are a colorful bunch, as any color or pattern found within the contributing breeds (Angora, Nigerian, Swiss types, etc.) are allowed within the registry.
Nigora goats average 19 to 29 inches tall for both bucks and does. Those that slide either below or above that range may still be acceptable, though. Like Pygoras, Nigoras can be disbudded or allowed to keep their horns, and some are naturally polled.
There are breed standards for the three Nigora fiber types:
This type of fleece has the characteristics of mohair and resembles the Angora breed the most.
This fleece has a blend of mohair and cashmere characteristics.
This type of fleece has the most cashmere characteristics.
Nigoras, like Pygoras, have a dual-coated fleece. If the intended use of the resulting yarn is to be against the skin, all types usually need dehairing. That said, those with a focused breeding program can end up with Nigoras that need little or no dehairing at all. However, for the purpose of introduction, the possibility of having to dehair Nigora and Pygora fiber is pretty high.
Cashmere goats produce fiber world renowned for its lightness, warmth and luxurious softness, but their name introduces some confusion, as a “cashmere goat” (from Kashmir, India) describes a type, not a breed, of goat (unlike previous fiber goats discussed in this article).
You see, cashmere is the downy undercoat that almost all goats produce—with the exception of Angoras—during the winter to insulate them from the cold. Any goat breed or lines within a breed that produce significant amounts of this undercoat (cashmere) are considered a cashmere goat. Therefore, keepers acquire (through selective breeding) animals that produce abundant quantities of cashmere.
People consider cashmere goats dual-purpose livestock animals for fiber and meat. Like Angoras, cashmere goats are raised for their fiber and are not typically dehorned.
Length, diameter and crimp determine cashmere fleece quality. Industry standards dictate the fiber should be 1 1/4 inches long and be less than 19 microns. Because of the the goats’ double-coat (downy undercoat and guard hairs), you have to dehair cashmere fiber before spinning.
Keepers ca harvest cashmere both by shearing or combing (brushing) out. Fleeces that are shorn contain more guard hairs. On average 3 to 4 ounces of cashmere is harvested from an adult goat in the spring.
For anyone who’s interested in luxurious, homegrown fiber and enjoys curious, easy-to-handle animals, a fiber goat could be the livestock of your dreams!
This article appeared in Hobby Farm‘s Best of Goats 101 2020 annual, a specialty publication produced by the editors and writers of Hobby Farms magazine. You can purchase this volume, Hobby Farms back issues as well as special editions such asBest of Hobby Farms and Living off the Grid by following this link.