When one hears the word tweed, even for someone in the know, oftentimes it will conjure up quite a particular image in our minds. Perhaps one of…an old country gent, parading around his estate dressed in a heavy green woollen fabric, rifle resting opened in the hook of his elbow in one arm, whilst opening the flap of his coat pocket and rummaging for cartridges with the other, as his English Pointer struts back towards him victorious, having just retrieved in his mouth a pheasant, recently stricken by his master.
And perhaps this is an accurate image, indeed it might even be a reality for some. But there’s a lot more to tweed than this – a fabric with a rich and varied history.
What tweed is, what tweed is not
Given its routinely misappropriated characterisation, tweed has built the reputation as somewhat of an enigmatic fabric, despite its commonplace. It is a fabric that we know, and yet we don’t know. Is tweed wool? Is tweed a woollen fabric with a rough and hairy texture? Is tweed a wool fabric with a windowpane check? Yes...and no. Whilst these are more often than not characteristics of most tweeds, neither of these are the essential characteristics that are to define this mysterious fabric.
What if I were to tell you that actually, tweed isn’t even really a fabric?
Here me out...
When we refer to something as tweed, we’re not really talking about the aesthetic properties of the fabric, but rather its physical properties. In other words, the techniques used to weave it.
The difference between a tweed and other fabric lies in the detail. Whereas worsted fabrics are yarn dyed, tweeds are fibre dyed. In simpler terms, the individual fibres that make up the bunches of wool used to weave tweed – the yarns – were dyed before they reached this stage, and then blended with other colours; fibre dyed. Then, and only then, are they spun into yarns. Naturally, the end effect is a fabric with kaleidoscopic levels of colour, unlike worsted fabrics, that are dyed after having been spun into yarns, producing a flatter more uniform colour; yarn dyed.
On top of that, tweed yarns are woollen as opposed to worsted yarns. The difference: woollen yarns are carded (separated and straightened), but the fibres are combed in different directions using various lengths, instead of a single direction with long fibres only, as with worsteds. The varied direction of the fibres serves to trap heat and produce an open weave, with the use of short fibres the reason why tweed will often give a ‘hairy’ finish. The ability to use fibres of different lengths also means that having a flock of sheep with fleeces of inconsistent lengths, will never pose a problem. Nothing will go to waste.
These two details are why tweeds often look completely different depending on the lighting, which often brings previously dormant colours to life. It is also why no two tweeds are identical in shade, and nor should we want them to be: that’s the unique charm of tweed.
The defining qualities of tweed then, lie in the fact that it is fibre-dyed rather than yarn dyed, with fibres being spun into yarns in several directions and fibre lengths, producing a depth and richness of colour unmatched by anything on the planet. This enigmatic archetype exists in an ethereal plane, that other fabrics can only dream of emulating.
So, whilst employing certain aesthetics can enable a garment to mimic or impersonate a tweed, tweed purists will only consider a fabric tweed, if it has been woven in this meticulous way which results in a colour depth that transcends the fabric itself. We mustn’t nonchalantly offend tweed’s rich heritage with these inferior comparisons. At best, these imitation fabrics must settle for being describe as ‘tweedy’.
Tweedy: A fabric showing the typical aesthetic characteristics of a tweed, but not technically a tweed.
A privilege indeed.
Whilst tweed is almost exclusively made from wool, given that it is defined by the technique employed to weave it – that is, dying and mixing colours at a fibre level and spinning them in different directions with different lengths – we can also have tweeds of silk, cashmere, or even wool, silk and linen blends, for a more measured and elegant iteration of the cloth. And yet still, it’s wool and the rugged outdoors takes centre stage whenever we think of tweeds. Some may cite this as nothing more than an historical happenstance, but we at Walker Slater know it’s much more than this.
In order to truly appreciate why wool has become synonymous with tweed, and why tweed is so closely linked with the outdoors, we must weave our way through history and retrace its origins.
As we trace back tweed to the original thread of its yarn, we discover not the lofty aristocratic country gent out shooting on his estate, but rather the humble working-class farmers of the Scottish Highlands.
Tweed then and tweed now
The earliest known usage and reference to tweed was recorded in the 18th Century, but not as the fashion piece that we know it today. In those times, tweed was aptly named Clò-Mór, Gaelic for ‘the big cloth’, and it was exactly that: big. This fabric was not woven for its intricate deep colours, but rather its practicality and heft. It was coarse, it was heavy and most importantly, it was weather-resistant – a key feature required to ward of the brutal rampaging elements know to batter the Scottish Highlands.
The farmers of Scotland needed real protection of ancestral quality, that would stand not only the test of time, but also the cutting winds that rural Britain exposed them to. And ‘the big cloth’ performed its duties with ruthless efficiency. It comes as no surprise then, that this practical fabric was appropriated and thus gentrified by the aristocracy.
In the early 19th Century, renting country estates from Highland landlords, was becoming increasingly vogue for English nobles keen on indulging in their favourite outdoors pursuits, such as fishing, riding and of course, shooting. The practice became somewhat of a lifestyle accessory for the landed gentry, and they soon realised that they needed the clothing to match.
Recognising the practicality of the Highland tradition of identifying one’s estate with unique and robust woollen fabrics suitable for country sport, they soon appropriated them, commissioning their own bespoke tweeds, adopting them as uniform for staff and sporting guests alike. And thus, we had the birth of the estate Tweed.
It was only later in the 19th Century that tweed became more accessible to the masses, as the fabric benefited from the advancements in manufacturing processes made during the Industrial Revolution. Wool became cheaper and easier to produce, allowing tweed to return to its accessible humble roots. It did so whilst still maintaining its exclusivity among the upper class, who had their own distinctive versions of the cloth. Tweed remained a fabric of choice for staying uniquely camouflaged and warm whilst engaging in outdoor pursuits.
When King Edward VIII introduced the fabric to Savile Row in the 20th Century, it gained even more momentum. Having thus proved itself in all social circles, in the 21st Century, tweeds can now be found in a variety of weights and patterns, making them appropriate for any occasion. It’s a chameleon in every sense of the word.
As demonstrated, tweed is a quintessentially British staple that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. Though some wrongly assume that tweed went out of fashion and is now making a return, they couldn’t be more wrong. Tweed has historically and indeed firmly established itself in every level of society. It never left, and it never will.
Tweed going forward
Whilst polyester and various other man-made technical fabrics have resulted in wool becoming a nostalgic relic of the past, things are beginning to change. With consumers sentiment increasingly focussing on green awareness and sustainability, it’s no surprise then that we are now in the midst of a renaissance of wool.
Tweeds are versatile enough to be dressed up or down for any occasion, and can be mixed and matched to work with the garments in your existing wardrobe. They come in various weights, allowing you to look your best outdoors, in the office, or lounging around at home, and their quality even means that they can be handed down and remain in your family for years to come.
Wool and thus tweed is the master key to sustainability; it always has been.
So, what is Tweed then?
Tweed is for your grandparents, your parents, your children, your aunts, your uncles, your cousins, your friends. It’s heavy, it’s light. It’s colourful, it’s muted. It’s bold, it’s discrete. It’s everything you could possibly wish for in a fabric and more, and it’s here to stay.