Tweed is a classic fabric and a personal favorite of many. A lot of people know of the iconic fabric, but only few know if its origin. The fabric was originated when Scottish weavers set out to create a denser option, perfect for outerwear. The result was a new woven, twill fabric. The name tweed originated when a London merchant misread the handwriting of “tweel” (the Scottish version of “twill”) confusing it with “tweed.”
Usually, tweed is made from wool. You may still see tweed advertised by the kind of sheep it comes from, such as cheviot tweed, merino tweed, and shetland tweed. The type of wool used will affect the look and feel of the tweed clothing. There are also other tweed materials, such as silk tweed and cotton tweed, but handwoven woolen tweed is the original. Tweed material is only one of the factors in a piece’s weight and softness, the quality and style of the weave matters just as much.
Customarily used for upper class country clothing like shooting jackets, the cloth became associated with leisurely pursuits of the elite. Tweed fabric is what Victorian sportsmen wore while hunting on their Scotland estates. With its durability, moisture-resistance, light-weight and warmth, tweed fabric was the perfect material for withstanding harsh climates while looking sharp. Traditionally, tweed is handmade, and the highest quality tweed you’ll buy today is still handmade. Handwoven tweed is heavier and coarser, while machine-woven is softer and thinner. That being said, machine-woven fabrics have come a long way, and it is possible to get high quality tweed that isn’t handwoven.
Harris Tweed vs. Donegal Tweed
Harris Tweed is the original and most well-known brand of tweed. Harris Tweed is a protected trademark, so when something is labeled Harris Tweed, it has specific meaning as defined by the Harris Tweed Act 1933:
handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the outer hebrides, finished in the outer hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the outer hebrides
Donegal tweed is another common term, but it’s not regulated in the way that Harris Tweed is. Donegal tweed refers to the style that originated in Donegal county in Ireland; Donegal tweed doesn’t necessarily have to be made in Donegal to use its name. Donegal tweed fabric is known for its flecky patterns and softer, lighter feel compared to Harris Tweed. But as a more loosely defined term, you can find Donegal tweed in a wide variety of colors, patterns, materials, styles, and quality. (Above material paraphrased from the Gentleman’s Gazette).
There are various other regionally specific tweed fabrics, however Donegal tweed is the most widely known and popular due to the greater options/patterns available and flexibility of the style.
Common Tweed Patterns:
Plain Twill: This is a simple weave with a diagonal pattern running throughout.
Overcheck Twill: A plain twill with a large checked design overlaid in contrasting color.
Plain Herringbone: Herringbone is so named because it looks like fish bones. The direction of the slant alternates column by column to create ‘v’ shapes. The pattern is quite pleasing to the eye.
Overcheck Herringbone (Estate Tweed): This pattern consists of a herringbone weave overlaid with a check in various colors. Also known as estate tweeds.
Barleycorn: Barleycorn tweeds are typically coarse and have a weave that produces the effect of barley kernels when viewed close-up. It is a very lively pattern.
Striped: Striped tweeds incorporate vertical line to create visible stripes of various sizes.
Tweed By Function:
Gamekeeper Tweed is a heavier weight cloth (700g+ or 24oz+) for greater insulation and protection on cold days. It can be found in a variety of patterns, weaves, and colors.
Sporting tweeds were developed as a form of indigenous camouflage to help hunters blend into the landscape particular to individual hunting estates. Color combinations were optimized to find the most effective combinations. For instance, one local weaver produced eight color variations for the Strathconon Estate before enlisting hunters to prove which was least visible. Tweed’s estate sporting background is the primary reason we have so many variations of patterns and colors today.
A thornproof tweed is woven with high twist fibers to make the cloth tough and resistant to tears and punctures. It was first used in 1870 in the Red River Rebellion in Canada, where troops wore a cloth made to resist the thorns. Thornproof is usually a plain, solid colored lightly grey-green fabric but also available with windowpanes. It is extremely practical for hunting or hiking through thick underbrush, brambles, and gorse. An interesting feature of the thornproof tweed is that it is a self-repairing cloth. If you were to push a sharp pointed object through the cloth to make a hole, all you need to do is massage the cloth between your thumbs and the hole will disappear. (Above material paraphrased from the Gentleman’s Gazette)