This is the third in a series of blog posts featuring the fabulous sponsors of Indie Spotlight, taking place from May 14-16, 2021.
I had heard about Jessica’s Rabbits and browsed the booth briefly at last year’s Kings County Fiber Festival, a small outdoor event that takes place a few miles from my Brooklyn apartment. I didn’t realize that owner/bunny wrangler/dyer Jessica Schmitz and I only live a few blocks away from each other until she applied for Indie Spotlight! Once I reach my fully vaxxed status, I look forward to meeting Jessica and seeing her adorable buns in real life, but for now I, and all of you, can have fun getting to know her virtually this weekend, and via this blog interview.
Tell us the story of how Jessica’s Rabbits came to be.
I moved to New York a few weeks before 9-11 to study classical flute. From that time until 2014, I lived in small city apartments — studios or tiny one bedrooms (if the real estate gods were smiling down upon me). But about six-and-a-half years ago I decided I needed to embrace my Midwestern roots and find more space, whether that be in the city or out.
Luckily, I found a listing for an old, potentially haunted, Victorian home in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. This was about the time I was falling deep in the yarn spinning rabbit hole, and a month into residence in my shockingly space-filled new digs I went to Rhinebeck Sheep & Wool Festival.
I didn’t go to Rhinebeck planning to stumble upon a booth with baby angora bunnies, take one home, and build a tiny furry commune in South Brooklyn, but that’s precisely what happened. The little bun that would become Jojo Cinnabun stuck his little head out of the litter box, jumped on me, and Bunny Town, USA was born.
For a few years after that fateful hop, I focused on learning how to spin and building inventory, and then when COVID happened (and flute work temporarily evaporated) I finally got a website together (yay pandemic projects!) Our little business launched in summer 2020.
You live not to far away from me in Brooklyn! What is it like raising fiber animals in the city?
It’s amazing! I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but have extended family in Indiana and farming has always been close to my heart. Having a little micro farm is the best of both worlds for me: I can get my Midwestern on with the buns, but then be close enough to the city for music work.
There are some challenges, however, to raising buns in the five boroughs: mainly getting food. Shockingly, there aren’t any Tractor Supply stores in the city, so I order about 300 pounds in bulk from New Jersey and drive out there every few months. The folks in the store call me “The Bunny Lady.”
Someday I’d also love to add some larger fiber friends to my family, and while I did look into subletting the downstairs apartment to an alpaca, that didn’t pan out (why is NYC always raining on my parade?). So maybe in the future I’ll follow in the footsteps of many a Brooklyn hipster before me and journey to the Hudson Valley.
What inspires your colorways?
It’s funny — as a musician and New Yorker I only wear black. So much of my yarn is the opposite of this fashion cosmic hole, defined by extreme brights and neons. I follow a lot of resin art accounts on Instagram, and the bold, glassy colors that come from alcohol ink in this genre are absolutely stunning.
Because all of my yarn is handspun, I dye much of it “in the wool,” meaning dyeing the fiber before I spin in. I love the variation this method brings, because I can blend colors together once they are already dry to highlight and accentuate different patterns. It’s more work doing it this way, but totally worth it to really make colors pop.
The natural colors of the buns is a big inspiration as well. Much of the fiber that I dye is from white bunnies, but overdyeing the natural greys, oranges, and blacks that the buns produce themselves can be a lot of fun.
Do you have a favorite color or colors, and have they changed since you became a dyer?
I love retro pinks, turquoises, and oranges (my apartment is a mid-century modern rainbow) and these hues carry through much of my work. When I first started spinning, I actually didn’t use any human-made dye, opting instead for natural dyes with avocado, madder root, etc. While I love these gorgeous soft tones, I couldn’t really find the bright turquoise I was craving with indigo. So I opened up the acid dye door just a tad to find a rich bright blue, and the other neons came pouring in.
I do still occasionally use natural dyes, but the chemistry behind all the subtle shades is a bit intimidating to me (I went to flute school, after all).
Is there a color that you would love to dye, but that is challenging to create?
I’ve been dreaming of speckled ombré kits but haven’t taken the plunge yet. Dyeing yarn after I’ve already spun it is scary to me, because if I mess it up I remember how darn long it took to spin the skein. I think the key to unlocking gradient success will be practicing on yarn I didn’t spin, and then working my way up to angora handspun victory (hopefully 😉 ).
Can you share some of your plans for Indie Spotlight?
I’m so very excited for Indie Spotlight! I’m planning on introducing folks to my new spring collection, which includes a lot of multi-animal fiber blends mixing angora with mohair, superfine Merino, alpaca, and more. I’m also launching a new yarn exclusive to Indie Spotlight called Bunboo, which is a blend of angora with bamboo fiber. Both fibers are incredibly soft and silky, and they of course take dye differently so the color variation is delicate and subtle.
When and how did you learn to knit?
While I was always a crafty kid, I actually didn’t learn to knit until I was about 30 and my brother and sister-in-law had a baby! I wanted to make my nephew a blanket so I went to Michaels, got a bunch of acrylic yarn, and hit YouTube. I didn’t know that circular needles were a thing, and remember being so incredibly perplexed as to how people made such large blankets on such small straight needles. I ended up making about 40 small squares and seaming them together. I’m so glad those medieval dark days are behind me.
What are some of your favorite FOs you or your customers have made with your yarn?
I’m always so amazed with the gorgeous items my customers make! One of my recent favorites was with my Bunicornyarn, a bulky 2-ply of brightly dyed angora and white alpaca, where the customer used 80 yards as the cuffs and neckline on a white form-fitting sweater.
What’s currently on your needles?
Know what’s crazy? Nothing! I’ve been spending all my time spinning and dyeing, I’ve run out of time to knit. But, once spring lightens up a bit I have a Knit Collage cardigan I’m dying to make that uses some super bulky wool in black and hot pink. I’m also soon to be in fall-pattern-planning mode for some bulky spins for cold days, 2021.