The term “Tweed” refers to a variety of pure virgin wool fabrics traditionally woven in a coarse, multicolored twill structure in earthy colors. The diagonal lines that run through the fabric are iconic to the cloth itself. The beauty of this rugged cloth through history is its warmth, hard wearing, wind and water resistant qualities, and its timeless appeal. It is no wonder that this fabric would become the standard wear in the British Isles, from which it originated. A fabric with ancestry that begins in Scotland…
For centuries the woolen cloth “Tweed” has been known as “Harris Tweed”, woven by hand in the Western Isles of Scotland. Originally, this hand woven fabric was crafted emerging among the farmers and land laborers as a sensible fabric that for the protection again the cold, damp climate in the North of Scotland. It is said that it became common for surplus tweed cloth to be traded or bartered and eventually became a form of currency for the Islanders. By the end of the 18th century, the spinning of wool yarn from local raw materials became a prominent industry and finished cloth was exported to the Scottish mainland. Interestingly, the name “Tweed” has its own story. It is noted that around 1830 a London merchant received a letter from a firm within the Scottish Borders, referring to “Tweels”, a pattern in which fabric is woven. It is believed that the word was incorectly read as “Tweed”, referencing the river “Tweed” that winded through the Scottish Border. Who knew? The cloth was soon advertised as “Tweed” and the name became synonymous with the checked fabric.
Of importance to the history of tweed is the reference to “Harris Tweed”. The 6th Earl of Dunmore inherited the North Harris Estate in 1836, during which time the production of tweed in the Western Isles of Scotland was manual. The wool was washed in soft, peaty water and then colored with dyes from local plants and lichens. After processing and being spun, it would be hand woven in the cottages by those trained in weaving this magical blend of colors. It was not until the death of the Earl in 1843 that the production changed. The estate on the Isle of Harris passed to his wife, Lady Catherine Herbert. It is referenced that Lady Herbert noticed the high quality of the Harris Tweed cloth produced locally by two sisters trained in Strond. In 1846, the Countess commissioned the sisters to weave lengths of tweed in the Murray family tartan (a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors, which at the time where associated with regions and districts and clans within scotland). The countess sent the sisters to the Scottish mainland to improve their weaving skills. In addition, she improved the yarn production process, creating a more consistent workable cloth. (Of note, to regulate and protect the fabric against imitations. the Harris Tweed “Orb” certification mark was created in 1909. Logo marketing, indeed! Known as the oldest British mark of its kind, Harris Tweed defined itself by “Only tweeds woven in the Outer Hebrides would be eligible”. Of note, Harris Tweed is still manufactured by hand today in lighter weights for more fitted tailoring and even brighter fabric choices.
By the late 1840’s the elite society were supplied with the handwoven Harris Tweed by merchants in Edinburgh, Scotland to London England. Certainly tweed began its journey through history within the social classes of the British Empire. The tweed fabric would soon define the English Country attire. The tweed fabric was certainly suitable (and fashionable) for the hunting, fishing and sporting outerwear. Tweed became the fabric of choice for the privileged classes, including the inner circle of Queen Victoria. Fashion and royalty, indeed.
And, my personal favorite….
Well known patterns of Tweeds are termed “Scottish Estate Tweeds”…
History states that during the early 19th century, English nobles were attracted to the countryside, north of the border. During this time many Scottish “Highland Chiefs” and landholders, short on money, sold many estates within Scotland to these English nobles. Within time, the fashionable rage of tweed met with a desire among new estate owners or tenants to commission special tweeds for their estates. These became known as “Estate Tweeds” or “Scottish Estate Tweeds”. In fact, perhaps it can be said that the thread of tradition has brought the “Tweeds” stylishly through its own fashionable history. Either way, Thus, it has been suggested that the emblematic and proper tweed fashion began as an upperclass trend in acquiring an Estate. An “Estate” trend, indeed. Alas, it is also said that if one could not afford to purchase an estate during this time, one rented one! Who knew?
The richly woven history of “Estate Tweeds” began around 1835 when the first “Estate Tweed” was commissioned by the Glenfeshire Estate for the Ghillies and the estate keepers. Referred to as the “Glenfeshie”, the simple black and white Shepard check, in a dogtoooth pattern, was later adopted by a gun club in the United States. Thus the term “Gun Club” became another popular term for this checked tweed of style. Following suit, in 1845, Lord Elcho of the Lovat Estate took inspiration from the surrounds of the Lovat Estate, which included heather, bluebells and birches. Lord Elcho commissioned a tweed, which became known as the Elcho or “Lovat Tweed”, woven with colorings of blue, yellow and marled green hues. Of a tweed of Royal decree, in 1848 Prince Albert purchased the Balmoral Estate from the Farguharsons of Inverey. Around 1850 Prince Albert designed his “Balmoral Tweed”. Certainly, a classic tweed that, like the others, has withstood the test of time and is woven throughout history. On another royal note, during the 1920’s, Prince Edward of Wales brought the “Glen Urquart Check” (also known as the “Glen Check” or the “Prince Of Wales” beyond the British Isles. The classic tweed added the subtle shade of brown in an intricate pattern of black and white. Indeed, the aristocratic history of tweed began with a rustic heritage of function and purpose. However, the subdued sophistication with the diversity of patterns and the cultured world from which it thrived from brings it far beyond the windswept terrain dotted with heather. The “cultured elegance” of tweed is longstanding. Fashion’s images throughout history attest to its regal and classic threads…
Consider the rich history of the woven tweed fabric. The evolution of function and style that this cloth has experienced has proven its iconic status as a fabric that will never tire from its appeal to the world of fashion. Woven with Heritage, tradition and classic appeal, “Tweed” has become a woven cloth of enduring style. A checked heritage of style, indeed.