Last week we brought you up to speed on the history of flannel and this week we’ll do the same for tweed. Now that the clocks have gone back an hour and the days are getting shorter, it’s time to bust out the warm wool. Just like flannel, the historic fabric has its roots in the cold, damp Scottish countryside. It’s original name, in fact, was “tweel” which is Scots for “twill” because of its twilled construction.
It’s come a long way since and you can now dress head-to-toe in nothing but tweed while staying in a 5-star tweed-lined hotel and listening to your music through tweed headphones. Take a look below to see how the fabric has made its way across borders and oceans over the past few centuries.
Originally, tweed was a rough woolen material woven by hand and designed for the working man out in the fields from dusk til dawn. In 1830, legend has it, a merchant in London received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The letter may as well have been written by a doctor as the merchant understood it to be a trade-name taken from the River Tweed which flows through the Scottish textile area. From then on, goods made of tweel were being advertised as “tweed” and the name has stuck ever since.
The word itself refers to the actual woolen fabric which is often made into different weaves including twill or plain. Twill weaves feature diagonal parallel ribs, the type of pattern most people think of when they think of tweed, while plain weaves feature a typical criss-cross pattern. Manufacturers have taken this design further by applying either a check or herringbone pattern. Check’s etymology goes without saying as does herringbone’s, in that the design resembles the skeleton of the eponymous fish.
Tweed made its way up the social hierarchy because of its great water and wind resistance qualities which Upper Englishmen quickly took note of and began sporting on outdoor excursions like hunting and fly-fishing. Tweed quickly gained a reputation as an outdoor-worthy material that still retained a sense of class and sophistication but it wasn’t until Prince Albert purchased the estate of Balmoral from the Farguharsons of Inverey in 1848 that tweed would reach new heights.
Now, anyone who was anyone bought an estate in the Scottish countryside or at the very least rented one lest they be shunned an outcast by England’s finest. The trend then began to commission signature tweeds in accordance with the new tenant’s desire to retain their estate in an immortal pattern. Prince Albert’s very own Balmore Tweed became one of these along with many other estate pattern’s still in use today including the Glen Feshie and the Shepherd check. Around the same time Lady Catherine inherited her husband’s estate on the Isle of Harris. She commissioned 2 sisters from Strond, known for their remarkably high-quality tweed, to weave their tweed for the gamekeepers on her Isle of Harris estate. Thus, Harris Tweed was born.
Illustration by Small Curd
It slowly worked its way down the societal ladder as the production of the material became less expensive and by the time King Edward VII came into power, the middle class could be seen sporting the fabric as testament to their upper-class aspirations. Although formally used for shooting jackets, the material found its way into a variety of different fields and quickly became worn by cyclists, golfers, and even motorists. One of the iconic representations of this era survives today in the likes of Mr. Toad, known for his fondness of Harris Tweed suits, from Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel The Wind in the Willows.
Photography: Street Etiquette
During the interwar years, from about 1919 to 1939, tweed jackets were taken from the Englishman’s wardrobe, given an American facelift by designers like Brooks Brothers and J. Press, and distributed among the young men of America’s elite East Coast colleges. From there it made its way across the country and through different levels of society. In no time the best jazz musicians could be seen dressed as Princeton men as could working-class heroes and former GIs.
The fabric waned in popularity on the other side of the pond until the post-war period when academics from the mod subculture adopted the recognizable patterning, an association still made today. Tweed bounced back across to the States and continued its association with intellectuals like in 1977 with Woody Allen’s memorable opening to Annie Hall.
More recently, Harris Tweed has managed to stay relevant and popular by lending its distinct composition to Nike, Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren, among many others. Above are contemporary pieces like this Cycling Jacket by Maison Kitsune, these Worker Trousers by Oliver Spencer, and these Grizzly Leather and Herringbone Tweed Boots by Quoddy.
The fabric’s even made its way to accessories that don’t quite benefit from the material’s warm nature like these Plattan Harris Tweed Headphones by Urbanears or this 5-panel Casper Cap by Penfield. Fender even ran a series of popular and now sought after line of amps called Fender Tweeds even though they used varnished cotton twill.
Tweed has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings and shows no signs of slowing down. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City is even running an exhibition right now on Ivy League style which of course includes the historic Scottish fabric. Who knows where tweed will appear next, computers, sponsoring jumps from space, the Mars Rover? Your guess is as good as ours.