History Of Tweed

Alongside the cries of foxes, the rustle of heather catching on a waxed jacket, and an explosion of pheasants from a hedge the British countryside is full of little cues and sensations that let you know that you couldn’t be anywhere else on earth. Another iconic symbol of rural life are Tweed suits, at once intensely practical and demure yet emblematic of a well dressed and prosperous gentleman. Tweed has since taken over many other types of garment, from hats to handbags, yet it is the iconic straight cut of a Tweed suit or the baggy look of a sportsman’s Plus Fours that really spring to mind when you think of the fabric. But where did Tweed come from, and how has it become such a fixture of British rural life? Let’s take a look.

Tweed Hunting Suit | Barrington Ayre

Tweeds Rural Roots

Tweed is one of several types of hardy cloth made throughout Europe using the Twill method of weaving rather than the plain or satin weave, which is more complex but known to be strong and waterproof thanks to its offset diagonal pattern. Alongside other Twill woven textiles such as Denim, Tweed was favoured by outdoor workers in the harsh winters of northern Scotland where Tweed is produced, particularly among kelp and peat cutters as well as fishermen and farmers. Originally known as ‘Tweel’, the Scots dialect word for Twill, the hard wearing cloth and its distinctive dyed stripes of yarn may have remained a rural curiosity if it weren’t for an explosion of interest in traditional Highland life sparked during the early Victorian period.

Scottish Tweed

Scotland’s position as a flourishing intellectual and industrial centre in Britain during the early 19th century saw many Scots of prominence rise to power in Government, industry and the Empire. The romantic image of the brave Highland warrior holding the line against the French at Waterloo, combined with the region’s royal patronage as the seat of Queen Victoria in Scotland, made all things Caledonian immensely fashionable. Based on the poetry and romantic tales of Sir Walter Scott, modern takes on traditional Scottish fabrics and styles from Kilts to Cummerbunds became common attire for anyone with the money to afford them. Boldly patterned Tweel was particularly popular as trousers that were even worn by Prince Albert, though legend has it that confused English textile merchants mixed up Tweel and Tweed, an area around the eponymous river in southern Scotland also famous for its fabrics, and the name eventually stuck.  

Tweed Fabric | Barrington Ayre

Tweed Takes Over

While many of these fashions were short lived, Tweed had a genuine benefit as a hardy and waterproof material that made it ideal for all kinds of outdoor activities such as fishing by shimmering lochs or grousing on damp English moors. Crucially, it was also breathable and lighter than similarly strong woolen fabrics, so it could be easily worn in the summer too. Never ones to miss a trick, tailors soon began producing Tweed in all manner of styles and colours for different social settings, as well as patterns for individual estates all over Britain. 

Like the modern kilt it was a Disneyland version of a more humble, historic material, but people from middle class professionals up to royalty couldn’t get enough of it. Wearing Tweed carried with it connotations of wealth and manliness, the sort of go-getting gent about town who was at home discussing business and politics in his drawing room as well as bagging pheasants out on his estate. Tweed became the unofficial uniform of the educated and wealthy in both town and country, and a mark of respectability if you happened to be caught outside about your sport.

Types of Tweed

Following the meteoric rise of Tweed from the fisherman’s hut to the halls of Government, distinct types of the special fabric emerged. Split roughly into three types, Tweed is defined by how it is made, where it is made or what it is made of: Barleycorn, Overcheck and Herringbone Tweed all employ those distinct patterns; Harris, Donegal, Shetland and Saxony Tweed are all made exclusively in those locations; while Cheviot Tweed is made from the wool of Cheviot sheep, a breed from southern Scotland and the north of England.

By far the most famous type of Tweed is Harris Tweed, still hand woven on the Isle of Harris in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. This type of Tweed is legally protected, and is thought to be the closest remaining Tweed to the original Twill spinners from centuries ago, working in their island cottages. By law any Harris Tweed that bears the logo of its protecting body must be spun, woven and finished on Harris, in order to protect it from lower quality imitation. This is the top of the pyramid when it comes to high quality Tweeds, and the one that makes the finest quality garments from suits, to capes and hats.

Bespoke Tweed Suit | Barrington Ayre

Tweed today

As fate would have it, Tweed is an ideal modern fabric for an age of sustainability, health and local pride. As one of the premier British fabrics, often produced in Scotland and turned into fine clothes in England, it is all locally produced by craftspeople using traditional methods that are kind to the environment, and causes a minimal carbon footprint in both its production and distribution. It’s also primarily an outdoor fabric designed to keep the wearer warm and dry, so whether you’re traipsing the countryside in a fashionable Tweed coat or pounding the pavement in a stylish Tweed suit, you’re usually out and about in the fresh air when you’re wearing Tweed.

If you’re in the market for traditional or modern bespoke Tweed suits or clothes, then Barrington Ayre would be delighted to help. Our friendly and approachable team in Cirencester is here to take your measurements and help you with ideas, while our experienced and conscientious tailors in Yorkshire are at the ready with years of practice creating amazing garments using Tweed. To start your journey into appreciating this venerable fabric, give Barrington Ayre a call today.

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