Since the late 1980s China has been the world's number one supplier of rabbit to the textile trade. From a standing start in the mid-1950s it has steadily built sales into a business turning over more than US$100 million a year.

Chinese farmers, particularly those operating holdings in the north western provinces, have been encouraged by the government to turn to rabbit production on the basis that it makes more economically and ecologically sensible use of the land available for agricultural purposes. 

It has also been suggested that the profits for growers are greater for rabbit farmers than those who keep the species of goat which yield cashmere, despite cashmere's reputation as one of the world's most luxurious fibres.

Most textile experts would agree that rabbit hair can actually be softer to the touch than cashmere and has better heat retaining properties than most other natural fibres. But until now demand for rabbit hair has been limited by the problems involved in processing it into yarn suitable for knitwear production and, when made up, its tendency to pill, shed hair and shrink in laundering.

Now after ten years of research and an investment of more than 20 million yuan, the Chinese believe they have solved these problems.

The end result of a 10-year project involving the Guangdong Science and Technology department and the Guangdong Puning Haotian Industry Co Ltd has been the development of a range of high speed spinning equipment specifically adapted to cope with processing rabbit hair for use in the ready-to-wear knitwear trade.

The ultimate aim is to enable China not only to export raw rabbit hair but to complement this trade with export sales of high quality ready-to-wear garments capable of competing with fine quality woollens and cashmere. 

By Sonia Roberts.