Hampshire Down are part of the old heritage sheep breeds and have been officially recognised as a breed since 1861. Hampshire Down existed in Australia soon after this date. The Hampshire Down breed not only produces a springy, medium staple wool, but was bred for its fast growing/maturing prime lambs. It makes a strong reliable breed with dual purpose.
The Hampshire Down were one of the early breeds that produced fast growing and early maturing prime lambs. As such the meat was more affordable and one of the reasons that lamb became more available to the family table in the 1800's.
William Humphrey who lived west of London, is recognised as the chief developer of the "new" Hampshire Down. It is suggested that he worked on producing the Hampshire Down breed after being impressed by the Southdown sheep exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1842.
The resulting Hampshire Down breed performed well in the intensive farming regimes then being established in their region. The hornless, dark-faced, good conformational sheep met the newly emerging requirement of early maturity and was getting attention from America.
Ivan Heazlewood of Tasmania has done much research on flock history in Australia ("From the Sheep Pen", published by the ASSBA) . Much of what we know about this breed in Australia is due to his work. Hampshire Downs were amongst the Lincolns, Leicesters, Cotswolds, Southdowns and Shropshires which members of the Tasmanian Longwool Sheepbreeders Association sent to shows and sales at Melbourne and Sydney in the late 1800s. This is confirmed by Vol. I of the Flock Book for British Sheep in Victoria (published in 1898) included three registered Hampshire flocks. From this point on, the breed was well represented in Australia.
But by 1970 the number of registered flocks declined to only nine. This is probably due to the dominance of the Southdown and the compactness of the Shropshire (which is now a rare breed). Additionally, pigmentation had been publicised by Merino breeders as a trait to be avoided. The fact that Hampshire’s persisted in Australia, the home of the Merino, at all is an achievement. The aversion to dark pigmentation on legs and faces did not exist in America where Hampshires continues to be popular today.
Fleece and Fibre
Hampshire Downs wool is white, of moderate length, close and has a fine texture. The staples are block shaped once washed. The fleece is a text book down variety. Coloured or black fleece is deemed objectionable in breeding and often culled. So it is rare to find black fleece as a hand crafter.
It is a classified as a short wool with 26 micron and the staple averages 9 cm in length.
The Hampshire Downs fibre is soft and can be used for near and next to near skin items. The staple length is short and therefore requires some processing to reap the rewards of the fibre.
As with all down fibres, they make a very elastic yarn which is durable. The Down fibre is good for socks, hats, mittens, gloves, etc. And is also very nice to blend with less springy fibres to give them some memory (like alpaca).
The Fleece and Fibre Sourcebook (see references) suggests that Hampshire Down fibre does not felt easily and that it therefore may be possible to machine wash items made from this fiber. This would be a great characteristic of this fiber. But create a test swatch first to ensure this to be the case before assuming true for your particular circumstances.
Since the Hampshire Down staple is short length, it is often processed with hand or drum cards. It can be blended with softer, longer fibres to give more bounce to a finished yarn and elasticity to a finished garment, like socks.
Where to Find Fibre or Products to Support this Breed
Australian Hampshire Down Association - the Australian breeders group for this breed
Heritage Sheep Australia - an Australian group that focusses on older sheep breeds
Gallery- A series of photos specific to the Hampshire Down breed