Tweed is a closely woven woollen fabric with generally subdued colours. The fabric often features a diagonal or twill weave and is hard wearing, comfortable and water resistant. In recent tmes the fabric has most often been used to fashion garments for country sports like hunting, shooting and equestrianism. The fabric has, however, seen something of a resurgence in the fashion world recently, perhaps because of its associations with quality and the aristocracy. The cloth certainly has a long and interesting history which began in Scotland.
Tweed was first used centuries ago by labourers and farmers in Scotland as an ideal foil to the cold, damp climate. In the 19th Century the English aristocracy stumbled across it during hunting trips and returned to England with examples for their tailors. It was originally a rough cloth for workman’s clothes but was to be transformed into the ideal luxury fabric to clothe the rich for outdoor pursuits. The name of the cloth was originally tweel, the Scottish word for Twill but legend has it that a London cloth merchant misread the word tweels for tweed making a mental association with the Scottish River Tweed. More likely the name has simply evolved from tweeled (meaning twilling).
Tweed fabric is fashioned from yarns which have coloured flecks on a plain background. The resulting fabrics often have a multi-coloured pattern with several different coloured threads being woven together. Common patterns are houndstooth, herringbone, checks and even tartans. The colours are often subdued and earthy as these made excellent camouflage for hunters and fishermen and were originally made with local, natural dyes. In the 19th Century many large estates in Scotland were sold or rented to the English aristocracy. The English had no claim to a tartan but wanted to follow the tradition of clothing their staff in an estate design and so the practice of commissioning bespoke tweeds for the estates was born. Due to its association with the lifestyles of the rich the fabric soon became all the rage.
Across the 20th century tweed remained the staple fabric for garments used for hunting and equestrianism but its popularity in other walks of life was waning until the 1960’s when the arrival of Mod culture saw a resurgence of interest in the fabric, particularly houndstooth. In recent times there has been a new upsurge in popularity with garments fashioned from tweed regularly appearing on the cat walks. Collections like Liam Gallaghers Pretty Green feature tweed jackets and Tweed has even started making an appearance on the high street.
The truth is that tweed has never really gone away. It has always been the fabric of choice for country pursuits and its hard wearing, water resistant and insulating qualities will always make it an excellent choice for smart but practical clothing. New fashion labels with a focus on natural fibres and traditional clothes are appearing all the time and tweed’s association with British history and the aristocracy will always give it credibility overseas. The production of tweed was once a declining industry but the cloths are now highly sort after all over the world.
Sally Stacey is a blogger, business owner and student of history. Read more about Sally on her Google+ page.