Tweed Guide – The Curiously Compelling Story of Tweed
Some view tweed as an itchy, stuffy, stodgy fabric only worn by aging northeastern college professors or by English gentry in the Scottish dells. However, check out the style icons who’ve worn tweed well:
Read on to discover the curiously compelling story of tweed and how to include tweed as part of your personal style.
The Origin of Tweed
It is commonly thought that tweed emerged in Scotland and Ireland as a way for the farmers there to battle the chilly, damp climate that characterizes those parts. Tweed began as a hand woven fabric. The cloth was rough, thick, and felted and the colors were muted and earthy. It was truly a working man’s cloth. As far as the name goes, there are a couple of theories.
- There is a River Tweed in Scotland and the cloth was made in the Tweed Valley, and some believe that is the origin of the word.
- A more popular legend has it that the name tweed is a twist on the Scottish word for “tweel” or twill in our parlance, which is the signature weave of the fabric. It is said that in 1826, a London clerk accidentally transcribed an order to “tweel” and wrote “tweed” instead, and from there the name came into use.
Whatever the origin, tweed is a rugged fabric, resistant to wind and water with excellent insulating properties.
The Arrival of Gentleman’s Tweed
The wearing of tweed entered a new phase when in the first half of the nineteenth century many estates in Scotland were acquired by English noblemen wishing to expand their life of leisure. In 1848, Prince Albert ignited a rush on Scottish estates when he purchased Balmoral. Although the foundation of the castle wasn’t laid until September 28, 1853, he designed The Balmoral Tweed earlier. Blue with white sprinkles and crimson in color, it was no coincidence that it looks grey from afar resembling the granite mountains of Aberdeenshire around Balmoral, because it was designed for deer stalking in the area. As such, one of the first Estate Tweeds was born and subsequently it became all the rage among estate owners to commission their own special tweeds.
Difference between Clan Tartans & Estate Tweeds
Two of the main families of tweeds are Clan Tartan Tweeds and Estate Tweeds, but what’s the difference? Think of it this way:
- Tweed is the general category that includes both varieties.
- A Clan Tartan identified the members of the same family no matter where they live. (Family based)
- An Estate Tweed used to identify people who live and work in the same estate, regardless of whether they are related or not. (Location based)
Because the tradition of Tartan was limited mostly to British noblemen, the estate owners focused on both the distinctiveness and the practicality of their tweed pattern. After all, the tweed needed to provide camouflage for hunting and deer stalking. As such, the colors were derived from the land itself and even the brightest were designed to blend in with the heather, timber, and rocky terrain. You can get an idea of the color variety from the picture of the Scottish landscape above.
The book Scottish Estate Tweeds (1995) cites Glenfeshie as the first estate tweed, commissioned around 1835 for the estate’s ghillies and keepers. The Glenfeshie was modified from a basic black and white check worn by the estate’s shepherds overlaid with a red windowpane and is the early relative of the “gun club” pattern.
In fact, in 1874, the New York Gun Club adopted the Coigach estate tweed as its official livery. However, the Club modified the tweed using two alternating darker colors together with the white of the Shepherd check thereby templating what is now known as the Gun Club check.
The variety of patterns and colors of tweed found today owe much to the originality of those 19th century estate owners. Although these patterns were once restricted only to family members and workers of the estate—much like the regimental tie or school crest—today anyone can wear them.
Tweed: The Gentleman’s Sporting Fabric
Tweed was the ideal sporting attire of the 19th and early 20th century gentleman and as such it was the performance fabric of its time. The English gentry quickly adopted tweed as the ideal outdoor cloth on their upcountry estates. Wearing tweed made hunting, shooting, and fishing comfortably enjoyable pastimes.
Tweed also became popular among the 19th century Victorian middle classes who associated it with the leisurely pursuits of the aristocracy. It was worn for virtually every sporting and adventure endeavor including golf, cycling, tennis, motoring, and mountain climbing.
Early golfers such as Old Tom Morris only played in tweed “plus fours,” and the wear of tweed for golf was nearly ubiquitous up until the 1930’s when summer flannel pants and polos starting becoming more popular. This photo of an Irish golfer from 1915 gives an idea of what it was like.
It is also a little known ironic fact of history that during the Boer War, the Boers, in fighting against the British in their desperate struggle, overwhelmingly clothed themselves in tweed!
Today, tweed is the fabric of choice for vintage bicyclists, especially a modern-day cycling Tweed Run. Tweed truly was the cloth for all things sports and outdoors back in the day. It was perfectly adapted to country pursuits as opposed to the darker wool suits worn in the city. This distinction between the leisure-based, earthy colored tweed and business focused grey, dark blue, and black suits perhaps gave rise to the so-called “no brown in town” rule, which has largely gone by the wayside with the possible exception of London.
Types of Tweed
It’s easy to get confused about types of tweed. Some are named for the sheep that originally produced the wool, others are named for the region from which they came, still others are gathered up as part of a brand name, and yet more are named for the function they were called upon to perform. The following discussion will help to make some sense of all this.
1. Tweed Named After Varieties of Sheep
a. Cheviot Tweed
Cheviot tweed is named after a breed of white faced sheep first kept in the Cheviot hills of Northumberland and the Scottish borders. Cheviot yarn is generally larger, rougher, and heavier than other types of tweed. It is a stiff fabric with a certain “sharpness” to the touch, and a bright luster. Cheviot fabric is normally woven more tightly, making it well suited for country wear due to its firmness and durability and city wear due to its ability to drape well and hold a crease.
Take a look at this nice example of a brown Cheviot jacket:
b. Shetland Tweed
Shetland tweed was originally woven from sheep raised on islands of the same name. The wools from these sheep is exceptionally fine with a soft, delicate and a slightly shaggy finish. It is the epitome of a casual tweed.
2. Geographically Named Tweed
a. Donegal Tweed
The name is derived from the Irish county of Donegal. The fabric is coarse which produces a rustic look, and features contrast-colored “neps” or “slubs” that produces a casual, sporty look.
b. Saxony Tweed
In the Middle Ages, Spanish sumptuary laws forbade the export of Merino producing sheep from the Christian areas of Spain. As those laws were relaxed, in 1765 the King of Spain sent a herd of Merino sheep to his cousin the Elector of Saxony in 1765. By the end of the century the state of Saxony had 4 million of these sheep.
Saxony tweed has a fine, short pile on its face and is very soft. It is used to produce comfortably wearing Merino-based sport jackets and to some extent, suits. Back in the day, the British Bladen company provided the marvelous 700 grams Supasax tweed, which was a fantastic piece of Saxony Tweed. Although the company is still in existence today and still produces this tweed in 650 grams made from dense and heavy lambswool it feels different than back in the day. Also the jacket styles are more limited. However, they also have a lighter 450 grams version that mixes wool and worsted yards that is well suited for office wear.
Other Geographically Named Tweeds: You may run across “Welsh,” “West of England,” and “Yorkshire” tweeds which are named for the areas in which they are manufactured.
3. Functionally Named Tweeds
a. Gamekeeper Tweed
Gamekeeper tweed is a heavier weight cloth (700g+ or 24oz+) for greater insulation and protection on cold days. It can be found in a variety of patterns, weaves, and colors.
b. Sporting Tweeds
Sporting tweeds were developed as a form of indigenous camouflage to help hunters blend into the landscape particular to individual hunting estates. Color combinations were optimized to find the most effective combinations. For instance, one local weaver produced eight color variations for the Strathconon Estate before enlisting hunters to prove which was least visible. Tweed’s estate sporting background is the primary reason we have so many variations of patterns and colors today.
c. Thornproof Tweeds
A thornproof tweed is woven with high twist fibers to make the cloth tough and resistant to tears and punctures. It was first used in 1870 in the Red River Rebellion in Canada, where troops wore a cloth made to resist the thorns. Thornproof is usually a plain, solid colored lightly grey-green fabric but also available with windowpanes. It is extremely practical for hunting or hiking through thick underbrush, brambles, and gorse. An interesting feature of thornproof tweed is that it is a self-repairing cloth. If you were to push a sharp pointed object through the cloth to make a hole, all you need to do is massage the cloth between your thumbs and the hole will disappear.
Brand Named Tweed
Harris: The most famous brand named tweed is of course Harris. Harris tweed has an open, loose twill weave that is rough to the touch. First woven in the 18th century by crafters in the Outer Hebrides, it was introduced to the British aristocracy in the 1840s by Lady Dunmore. To regulate and protect the fabric against imitations, the Harris Tweed Orb certification mark was created in 1909—the oldest British mark of its kind—with the definition, “only tweeds woven in the Outer Hebrides would be eligible.” The use of the name was protected and only hand-spun and hand-woven products of 100% wool form the Outer Hebrides was allowed to use the Harris Tweed trade mark.
Today, the yarn is 100% pure virgin wool, but no longer hand spun. This change was introduced with the Hattersley mark 1 loom, the first kind operated by feet because the weavers were unable to produce the quantity or consistent quality necessary from hand spun yarn. Unfortunately, there was not enough wool from the Outer Hebrides to meet the demand, and hence 100% virgin wool from the UK is accepted now. Clothing made out of Harris Tweed will have trade mark label sewn into it.
Estate Named Tweeds
Estate named tweeds are associated with the particular estate for which they were commissioned. These tweeds are remarkable for their variety in patterns, colors, and weaves. This variety gives modern-day tweed wearers plenty of options from which to choose.
Common Tweed Patterns
Tweed comes in a variety of patterns and weavers that contribute to the look and durability of the fabric.
Plain Twill: This is a simple weave with a diagonal pattern running throughout.
Overcheck Twill: A plain twill with a large checked design overlaid in contrasting color.
Plain Herringbone: Herringbone is so named because it looks like fish bones. The direction of the slant alternates column by column to create ‘v’ shapes. The pattern is quite pleasing to the eye.
Overcheck Herringbone (Estate Tweed): This pattern consists of a herringbone weave overlaid with a check in various colors. Also known as estate tweeds.
Barleycorn: Barleycorn tweeds are typically coarse and have a weave that produces the effect of barley kernels when viewed close-up. It is a very lively pattern.
Striped: Striped tweeds incorporate vertical line to create visible stripes of various sizes.
Houndstooth: This pattern resembles the back teeth of a dog and was found to be a very effective form of camouflage. The larger houndstooth pattern is contrasted with the smaller “dogtooth.”
Checked: A pattern of horizontal and vertical lines that create small squares. It is sometimes enhanced by a larger overcheck in a different color.
Tartans and Plaids: The traditional Scottish cloth can be woven as a tweed.
Harris Tweed – A Modern-Day Tweed Manufacturing Drama
Tweed is as close to British national dress as you might get. It is a fabric that arose from the land to reflect the heathered hills, patched by gorse and stone, and cut by cold-running streams. For long, damp centuries, tweed was a peasant cloth that was appropriated for use by the landed gentry on their estates. It wasn’t until King Edward VII took interest in it and brought the cloth to Savile Row that it really took off. The cloth soon became an indispensable part of any aspiring gentleman’s wardrobe.If tweed is a part of the British cultural patrimony, then Harris Tweed is its symbol. Harris Tweed is protected by British law and in order to bear the mark of the Harris Tweed orb, the cloth must be woven by a Hebrides islander and finish in one of only a few factories on certain islands.
To be sure, Harris Tweed has established a place in men’s sartorial history, but over the years, its appeal seemed to wane. Although there were 7 million yards of Harris Tweed woven in 1966, by 2006 the amount was down to 700,000. Despite the legal protection, Harris Tweed still had to compete in the marketplace.
To complicate matters, the seemly limitless variety of Harris Tweed fabrics—and the cottage industry itself—was very nearly wiped out with a capitalistic wave of the hand.
In the winter of 2006, a veteran textile merchant by the name of Brian Haggas purchased the Kenneth Mackenzie Mill which produced 95% of the Harris Tweed still being made. Soon thereafter he cut the number of Harris Tweed patterns from 8000 to just 4.
Haggas’ literal objective was to corner the market on Harris Tweed and bring modern manufacturing efficiency to the hand-crafted process. Faced with a being cut-off from what was a veritable cornucopia of tweed patterns, traditional cloth vendors scoured the countryside for small stashes of the more colorful versions.
In the meantime, Haggas began churning out thousands of Harris Tweed jackets outsourced to Chinese factories in 4 standard patterns and one standard cut. Once the 75,000 jackets were warehoused, he set in place a “just-in-time” ordering process where he could supply any retailer, with any size and amount of jacket in just a few hours. A true feat of enterprise and know-how.
Problem was, nobody bought the jackets. And factory workers were laid off. And weavers had nothing to weave.
Recognizing the dilemma, New York real-estate magnate Alan Bain set out to save what was left of a mortally wounded industry and bought one of the remaining Harris Tweed Mills. Former British trade minister Brian Wilson did the same with another, leaving just two tiny mills to produce the world’s entire supply of authentic Harris Tweed–only 5% of what had been previously produced.
Out these dark times, however, emerged a marketing renaissance for Harris Tweed as the Harris Tweed authority began to court modern fashion designers of all stripes on the heritage, richness, and romance of the cloth.
In addition, a huge stash of vintage Harris Tweed, including experimental types, was found languishing in a portside warehouse, there discarded by Haggas as unnecessary. A veritable lost treasure of 8,000 iterations of the cloth.
Although the future of Harris Tweed has been irrevocably altered from that of its pastoral heritage, it remains an essential part of the sartorial landscape. To be sure, the cottage industry is smaller, but the craft has survived as has the demand for this fine tweed by a discerning public.
Although tweed does evoke stereotypes such as the Country Gentleman, The College Professor, and East Coat Intellectual, the cloth has experienced a renaissance in recent times and now carries with it a certain sophistication.
A long line of subculture movements such as the British Indie, hipster, Sloane rangers, and preppies has enthusiastically adopted tweed as a part of their wardrobe repertoire. This periodic “return to tweed” not only helps keep the tradition of tweed alive, but also serves to inject new life and energy into this iconic cloth.
Although tweed may still be the exclusive uniform for windswept Scottish estates, nowadays a thoughtful, well-tailored tweed jacket or suit evokes a certain refined flair for any man. Its rustic outdoor heritage makes it a very democratic cloth, suitable for wear for all classes.
How to Wear Tweed?
Because tweed is inherently a cool weather fabric it goes well with autumn, cold-weather golfing, the opening of bird season, fall run trout, and crisp winter days. On the other hand, tweed is not ideally suited for classic white collar business outfits or more formal evening events.
A good rule of thumb for tweed is to wear it in any cool weather situation where a sport coat or casual suit is appropriate. Weekends are great for tweed. Keep in mind too, that a new tweed jacket or suit will require some break-in time. There are reports of people throwing their traditional tweed jackets against a wall to soften it up. I don’t know if that’s actually done, but once a tweed jacket is broken in–wow–what a comfortably wearing garment.
Apart from the classic, rough tweeds, you can now find companies like Dashing Tweeds, who supply modern patterns and styles of this classic fabric. If you prefer a traditional look, but with a softer, more lightly woven tweed, you may want to take a look at Breanish Tweeds, who are known for their lightweight versions that are also gentle and fluffy to the touch.
True country tweed suits are hard-wearing, long-lasting garments. Little details like collar closures, leather buttons, and hacking (slanted) pockets all add to the distinctiveness of the look.
If you’re really into tweed and the country lifestyle, you can go full bore with a Norfolk jacket.
Apart from that, there are endless ways to wear tweeds. Due to its country heritage, the vast majority of all tweed coats are tailored in a single breasted style with notched lapels and center vents, the vents being a nod to the adaption of jackets for horseback riding. Back in the day tweed suits were the normal wear option, whereas today you definitely see more sport coats than two piece and three piece suits.
If you fancy tweed, you should consider investing in a three piece tweed suit, perhaps even with knickerbockers, but whatever you decide, ensure you choose a weight that is appropriate to your climate and purpose. Suits made of heavy 700 gram fabrics will not be suitable for most people, unless they go shooting when it’s cold outside or the fabric is made up into a coat. Of course, a heavy 1000 gram Gamekeepers tweed may be great for some outdoor activity but if worn indoors, it will be likely too warm. On the other hand heavy tweed cloth makes for fantastic overcoats, such as an Ulster or Guards Coat.
For most, suits or sport coats made out of a 300 – 400 gram tweed cloth will be much more suitable for a number of different activities such as hiking or strolling. As with anything, consider all these aspects before buying tweed so you are not stuck with a beautiful garment that just hangs in your closet because it’s too warm for you to wear.
With regard to shirts, most tweeds look better with shirts that are not white. Instead, choose pastel colors or patterned flannel shirts in Super 80s rather than a super 200s, because not only are they more in line with the country heritage, they also look better.
If you decide go with an odd jacket made of tweed, there are several good options for pants. In general, a heavier wool is called for to match the weightiness of tweed fabric. Flannel is a great choice as are corduroy (preferably wide wale), calvary twill, moleskin, and even waxed cotton. Chinos could also work if the tweed is a lighter weight. Some might even consider a sturdy pair of selvage jeans in a pinch.
For neckwear, wool, cashmere, or madder silk ties work great. Knit ties in wool are recommended as well. Pocket squares should not be white but should complement your outfit with earthy or muted fall colors. For shoes, full brogues in all shades of brown, lace-up dress boots or jodpuhrs, and double soled derby’s are best. Avoid oxfords as they are more formal and definitely don’t wear black shoes.
And let’s not forget the classic tweed driving cap favored by rally racers and golfers of yore. These hats lend a dashing touch to a tweed-jacket or suit.
Of course, tweed is not only suited for apparel but also for duffel bags, luggage, gun cases, or even briefcases. You can even find people who wear matching accessories with their bespoke tweed suits, which can look rather sophisticated.
I hope I was able to show you that that tweed is not the itchy, stuffy, stodgy fabric only worn by aging men, but rather a fabric with a rich and varied history that is also practical, versatile, and classically stylish. Although eminently suited for its original outdoor purpose as well as any cool weather casual occasion, it can certainly be worn in the city today especially in less formal environments or on the weekends.
Tweed: wear it well!This article was mostly written by Joe Scherrer and amended as well as edited by Sven Raphael Schneider. Joe writes and curates the Tailored and Styled blog. The blog emphasizes classic dressing and is a place for aspiring, rising, and established professionals to receive in-depth style commentary, insight on the craft of custom tailoring as well as style tips and courses for improving their personal classic style.