For some, tweed is viewed as strictly the reserve of the fusty, stuffy gent casually infringing the no-smoking policy in the back of the library. Good; this is the way we want it to stay, with high street merchants “collaborating” with well known estates such as the Harris Co., the fabric is losing some of its lustre, as any barbigerous young bounder can now sport the material.
The practice is still adopted in cities throughout the world during the Tweed Run, though at any given one of these events there are bound to be a few unacceptable versions of the fabric
Tweed originated in Scotland and Ireland as a way for farmers and the like to brave the elements. Originally a hand-woven fabric in tones resembling the landscape of its inception, the coarse, thick cloth suited working life aptly. The name, depending on whom you ask, is derived either from the Scottish word “Tweel” (Twill) and is down to the sloppy penmanship of a clerk working at William Watson, Hawick in 1826, or the Tweed valley, on the river Tweed in Scotland, from which the fabric took its name. Though quite the opposite could be true.
WHAT IS TWEED?
Tweed, like Scotch whisky, is hard to define as one particular object, for it is subject to such a wide array of varieties and is therefore definable according to many factors. Let us, however, begin with some varieties of wool from which the fabric is woven. Cheviot, a breed of sheep named after the hills on the Scottish borders, is a hefty, sturdy yarn, making for a sharp, tightly woven tweed at the more formal end of the scale; it, for example, makes a particularly effective Ulster coat. Shetland tweed, on the contrary, is a much finer wool which results in a fuzzier, more casual tweed, the kind favoured by intellectuals and more likely to grace a university green than a highland glen. Another common wool to be found in tweed is Merino, most commonly produced in the state of Saxony, where the Merino sheep may safely graze. Other tweeds take their characteristics and moniker from their respective origins of production, and include Welsh, Islay, Yorkshire and Donegal (the latter with its distinctive flecking). Tweed patterns have even been known to be woven in cashmere and silk, though this sheer juxtaposition befuddles even the most sanguine of tailors.
In 1848, Prince Albert bought Balmoral castle from the Farquharsons of Inverney, and the proceeding demand for Scottish estates by the English gentry saw many further estates purchased, for the pursuit of outdoor sports such as hunting and fishing. Prince Albert didn’t waste any time in designing a signature tweed in grey to match the mountainous grounds surrounding the estate, mixed with a little blue and crimson that was perfect for stalking in the grounds; a camouflage of sorts. A craze was born and soon the Estate tweed became a must-have for the estate owners.
To differentiate, an Estate tweed can be worn by peoples living and working on the same estate, whereas a Clan Tartan can only be worn by members of the family to which the design belongs. As only British noblemen could wear the latter, the Estate tweed afforded each estate an uniform of sorts, and would be worn not only by the people who lived on such an estate, but by the people who worked there as well. In 1745 tartan was banned, in an effort to lessen Clan influence. This led to many chiefs selling their estates to English nobles. The first estate tweed was Glenfeshie, a black and white houndstooth with a red overcheck, developed in 1835 by Miss Balfour to differentiate her ghillies and shepherds. Ten years later, Lord Elcho of the Lovat Estate commissioned a tweed woven in hues of blue, yellow and marled green to match the heather, bluebells and birches of his surrounding lands. This was known as the Lovat Tweed.
These patterns transcended into club checks, and small additions such as the overlaid windowpane check originally synonymous with the ghillies of the Glenfeshie estate became associated with many a gun club.
Patterns in which tweed is woven are numerous, but the most common are twill, herringbone, barleycorn and houndstooth, with aforementioned overlaid checks working as signifiers. The heaviest cloth version of tweed is known as gamekeeper tweed, often found in weights of over 24oz and woven from thornproof high twist fibres.
Being a stout, hardy fabric, it is small wonder that tweed was adopted by the sporting elite and consequently by the Victorian middle classes, who would attempt to copy them, with tweed plus-fours especially popular with the golfing and cycling set. The practice is still adopted in cities throughout the world during the Tweed Run, though at any given one of these events there are bound to be a few unacceptable versions of the fabric, (the whole event also flagrantly disregards that most sacred of gentlemen’s commandments: Never brown in town.
And so we come to Harris, a name synonymous with tweed worldwide. First woven in the Outer Hebrides in the 18th Century, the fabric was introduced to the British aristocracy by one Lady Dunmore in the 1840s, and in 1909 the Harris Tweed Orb Certification Mark was created to prevent imitations and ensure that “only tweeds woven in the Outer Hebrides” are eligible to bear the mark and name. Despite their mercifully infrequent collaborations with scoundrel retailers like Messrs Top Man and A. Sos, Harris is still a damn fine tweed.
HOW TO WEAR
The wearing of tweed, while fundamental to a chap (see The Chap Manifesto, Rule 1) is not something done easily or with haste. A new tweed will require breaking in, be it by hurling one’s coat repeatedly against a wall or simply by the result of natural gentlemanly pursuits such as hiking, hunting or leaning against the bar. So too, must one respect the hallowed fabric; pairing is easily done, if done well. If you are not sporting an entire tweed three piece complete with knickerbockers, then try to match the weight and colour of the tweed, in flannel wool or wide-wale corduroy. Shoes? Brogues. Unequivocally.