Guides and Insights

The history of tweed

The history of tweed
By Nick Fiddes

Tweed today has an iconic style indelibly linked to upper class pursuits. It has a far claim to be British national dress, the obligatory wardrobe staple of any gentleman or socialite. But it wasn't always thus.

In these articles about understanding tweed we explore how tweed is produced, defined and used, and how its contemporary symbolism developed. The whole series covers the history of tweed, then types or sources of tweed; then tweed patterns; then tweed materials; and finally wearing tweed.

In this article we'll guide you through a brief history of tweed. We'll start with its humble beginnings as a practical peasant fabric. Then we'll describe its adoption as a symbol of wealthy by landowners and royalty. Next we'll cover its twentieth century discovery and popularisation by fashion designers. And finally we'll bring this right up to date, with today's adoption by hipsters and millennials, which still harks back to tweed's heritage as a signifier of both wealth and vintage authenticity.

Tweed's humble origins

Tweed weaving in a croft

Tweed arose from the land, most likely originating in Scotland and Ireland as a practical peasant fabric for outdoor work like farming. For centuries its robustness, insulation and wind-resistance protected working men and women against the cold and wet of Britain's rural climate. Only later was it appropriated by the landed gentry.

Although it shares its name with the River Tweed just along the road from our own weaving mill, this may or may not be coincidence. One version has it that the name tweed was first used in 1826 when a London cloth merchant's clerk received an invoice from Wm. Watson & Sons based at Dangerfield Mills of Hawick in Scotland. It is said that they mistook the word 'tweel' (a Scots name for twill) in the letter. So he presumed it to be a brand name for fabrics from the Tweed river region. They advertised these goods as "tweed" and the term stuck. That's the legend anyway.

Much tweed was actually produced in the Western Isles of Scotland however. This may even be the older tradition. By the late 1700s many crofts had looms and it was a major industry for the islanders, shipping their products to mainland Scotland and further afield. These fabrics were valued not only for their rugged, thick, felted texture, but also their skilled blending of typically earthy colours. This tradition continues today with the recognition of Harris Tweed as a regional speciality, protected by Royal Warrant.

The invention of the Estate Tweed

Early in the nineteenth century, money was becoming tight for Highland landlords in Scotland, who found a market for their properties amongst English aristocrats. It became fashionable for English nobles to buy or rent country estates in Scotland as a lifestyle accessory for parties organised around their hunting, shooting and fishing pastimes.

Robust tweed suits and overcoats were the ideal outdoor garments to provide the landed gentry and their upcountry guests at their country estates. Largely weatherproof, tweed gave them protection from the elements while outdoors shooting, riding, or pursuing game.

ghillies at balmoral

The first Estate Tweed is said to have been born around 1835 when General Balfour of Balbirnie rented the Glenfeshie Estate for a few years. It had been a Highland tradition for chiefs to provide their retainers with garments in the clan tartan. But as ownership of Scottish estates changed, incomers pledging no loyalty to the clan had no right to wear their tartan. Balfour's daughter was aggrieved that their wearing the local tartan was disapproved. So Miss Balfour added a scarlet overcheck or windowpane to the traditional black and white Shepherd's check to ensure her attendants, ghillies and gamekeepers weren't mistaken for humble shepherds. She considered this her "tartan", though of course it wasn't. It was the first Estate Tweed.

Early estate tweeds were generally new combinations and variations on this classic plaid. These tweeds were designed primarily as camouflage for hunting and deer stalking in the Scottish countryside. So estate owners sought to make their patterns practical as well as distinctive. As such, even the brightest colours were found in their land, designed to blend into the heather and gorse of their hills, the timber and leaves of woodlands, and the stones and running streams of rocky terrain.

Today's wealth of tweed patterns and shades mostly started on these Victorian estates. In 1845 a marled mixture of blue and yellow yarns was devised on the Lovat estate, inspired by the pastoral shades of their lands. This created the now orthodox green Lovat tweed.

In 1846 the Coigach estate further transformed the Glenfeshie Shepherd's check, adding two alternating darker colours. A few decades later in 1874, the New York Gun Club in the United States adopted this pattern as its official livery. This shooting association gave birth to what is now sometimes known as the Gun Club tweed pattern.

It's a historical curiosity that Estate Tweeds are also the precursor for modern military camouflage. Lord Elcho had recently founded a London Scottish Regiment, and realised that soldiers wearing the conspicuous scarlet of old were more vulnerable. Observing the new marled Love colours, he created a tweed for his soldiers, with camouflage in mind. Known as the 'Elcho mixture' this in due course developed into the now familiar khaki uniform.

Tweed receives Royal patronage

Balmoral Castle

Queen Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, soon jumped on this bandwagon, in 1848 purchasing the estate of Balmoral from the Farquharson family. Even before laying the castle's foundations five years later, Albert commissioned the Balmoral tartan, as a romanticised facsimile of Highland traditions. The story goes that Albert designed this himself, though this is probably myth as there is little evidence for the claim. But regardless, the Royal family knew it would have been offensive and divisive for an English noble to have worn any existing clan tartan. So the Balmoral plaid was created and woven as tweed for deerstalking, its grey Aberdeenshire granite tones blending into the landscape with hints of blue and red - a tartan that our own DC Dalgliesh weaving mill is proud to have been honoured to weave this exclusive fabric for her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:

Balmoral tartan woven for the Queen at DC Dalgliesh

Other wealthy land owners of course wanted to mimic Victoria and Albert. So they too would create such attire for their retainers, to show off their own Estate Tweeds, and thus inventing a tradition that survives to this day. This association with land ownership and nobility (unlike clan tartans that indicate social kinship) explains why tweed fabric and fashion still evokes such a posh image, harking back to the hunting style of 19th century (Victorian) British royalty.

Tweed's qualities also helped it spread overseas. Even the Boers clad themselves in tweed for their resistance fight against the British empire.

Tweed filters down to the middle classes

Their aristocratic example spread to the 19th-century middle classes who from as early as the 1830s began to follow this trend, adopting warm and earthy tweeds for countless outdoor activities including hill-walking and mountain climbing (including the first ascent of Everest) early motoring, bicycling, and even tennis.

Golfer in tweeds

One of history's most famous golfers, Old Tom Morris, wore only tweed plus fours. The style became ubiquitous golf wear well into the 1930s.

This distinction gave rise to the "no brown in town" rule contrasting with darker city business uniform, which survives as a relic in London society. In a sense it was a performance fabric of the day, rapidly becoming indispensable for field sports in preference to the brushed wool broadcloth which was common before, that absorbed water much faster.

By now tweeds were no longer restricted to family members and estate staff, where they began their journey as an emblem of belonging like an old school tie or family crest. This means that today anyone can wear any of these tweeds as part of our shared heritage.

Tweed in the twentieth century

Another more elaborate tweed variant developed in the 20th-century, when King Edward VII as Prince Edward of Wales added brown to the traditional Shepherd's Plaid pallet, combining it with a houndstooth. Originally known as the Glenurquhart check, this pattern is commonly known as the Glen check or the Prince of Wales check.

By now, lighter variants of this traditionally heavy fabric were being introduced, enabling designers to expand the range of products for which it was suitable. Edward introduced the cloth to Savile Row, from where it caught on as the Edwardian middle class adopted the style. Soon tweed became 'de rigueur' for any conformist or upwardly mobile member of British society. The fabric's international growth was hardly dented even by a 1913 feature in The New York Times headlined, "Tweeds are Not Stylish".

Chanel tweed dress

Perhaps the most iconic tweed garment of all time was the elegant but slouchy couture jacket and suits in knobbly Linton tweed from Carlisle, that Coco Chanel first introduced in 1954. Decades later, this timeless classic remains one of the most eagerly desired wardrobe items for women worldwide. And tweed accordingly remains a cornerstone of this design house's aesthetic and its reputation, receiving annual reinventions.

For some the Chanel jacket or suit almost defined the swinging 60s. But it was by no means the only sign of success. Tweed garments (particularly in houndstooth) became insignia of the mods, for example. And tweed's heritage has long been romanticised in fashion by the likes of Ralph Lauren. But one designer's love of Harris Tweed perhaps went a step too far. Vivienne Westwood was such a fan that her own brand logo closely resembled the Harris Tweed Orb trademark. The Harris Tweed Authority pursued a legal case to protect their mark, which Westwood defeated on grounds of multiple minor differences between her logo and Harris Tweed's. She still regularly uses Harris Tweed, but also still uses her logo for collections where the Orb would not be allowed.

This popularity meant that tweed had now long escaped its original speciality niche. By the 1960s, Harris Tweed production alone reached about seven million meters. And designs probably numbered in the tens of thousands, from monochrome to outlandishly colourful. However this vast success also contained the seeds of its near demise.

How Harris Tweed almost died, then was reborn

Harris Tweed orb

If tweed has a spiritual home, it is on the Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barr, far off the western coast of Scotland, first introduced to the British aristocracy by Lady Dunmore in the 1840s. For more than a century now, these islands have been the only place that Harris Tweed can be made, as the name is protected from imitation by Act of Parliament, the only fabric to have such a status. The Harris Tweed Orb Mark, created in 1909 is the oldest British Certification of its kind, regulated by the Harris Tweed Authority. And any fabric or garment made of Harris Tweed qualifies to have this special trade mark label sewn into it.

In the late twentieth century Harris Tweed became wildly popular. But fashions also wane. By 2006 production had slumped to around 700,000 yards, 90% down from its 1960s heyday. And the industry was in trouble.

A Yorkshire businessman named Brian Haggas saw his chance to corner the market in Harris Tweed. In the middle of winter he bought the Kenneth Mackenzie Mill, which made 95% of the Harris Tweed still being produced. Haggas immediately slashed the range of Harris Tweed patterns to just four. And they were rather dull designs at that, intended to appeal to buyers of his conservatively styled jackets, of which he manufactured tens of thousands in Chinese factories to a single pattern.

There was only one problem. His jackets didn't sell, at least in the numbers needed to justify his investment - or to keep the islanders' main industry alive. Mill workers were laid off, and weavers lost their livelihoods. It seemed this wonderful tradition would be lost forever.

But the islanders rallied round, and soon two mills arose from the ashes. A leading light of the Scottish diaspora in the USA, Alan Bain, re-opened and helped to modernise the small Carloway mill. And former MP (and ex-trade minister) Brian Wilson put together a consortium to revive another.

But major hurdles remained. Chief amongst these was that the tradition's entire heritage had been lost, when Brian Haggas unromantically discarded as redundant the islands' treasury of patterns. Miraculously, an archive of around eight thousand designs was found gathering dust in a warehouse by the sea.

Although production was now down to around 5% of its glory-days, the building blocks were now in place to rebuild an industry. The Harris Tweed authority has led a marketing renaissance, introducing this fabulous fabric to new generations through alliances with cutting edge designers. Within a decade of its near-demise, Harris Tweed was winning export awards.

We can only hope that lessons have been learned, and their focus is on long term sustainability more than fleeting fashion. Because these are the values that underpin the brand.

Tweed today

Despite the regular revelation of a "return to tweed" in the glossies, tweed has never gone away, so no renaissance is needed. Today has only ever become even better established at more levels of society.

In these days or rising Green awareness, tweed's popularity (just like tartan) is rightly boosted by being so environmentally friendly. This is not only due to being a natural material, typically woven within a local ecosystem with relatively few production miles and little waste. But more important still is that a quality tweed or tartan garment is expected to last for decades, quite likely even being passed down through the generations. That's the secret to true sustainability.

Remarkably, even since achieving mass market success spurred on by prominence in series like Downton Abbey, it has lost none of its appeal to elites. Thanks to its eminent practicality you'll still see tweed on the sporting Estates, just as it's been for centuries. Look carefully and you'll notice the garments worn by those in the know will be carelessly frayed and time-worn, as a signifier of Old Money.

Hipsters in tweed

In recent years, tweed has also been widely adopted by both Indies and Hipsters, as the latest in a long line of subculture movements who have discovered tweed's powers as a signifier. Each reinvention injects new energy and layers of meaning into this iconic cloth. Today it's an essential accessory for the bicycling coffee house set of young fogies and moustached fashionistas, for whom tweed's timeless associations with vintage values says everything necessary. And why not?

Another niche for whom tweed is a firm favourite are the literal and spiritual descendants of the 1980s' Sloane Rangers, or preppies in the US. For anyone wishing to move in fashionable circles, a tweed skirt, jacket, coat or bag is an almost automatic choice to complete the right look.

But these caricatures miss the essential point, which is that tweed is now universal, and its popularity has never dipped. And in the end this may not be just about style at all. Tweed's robust durability ensures it will never be throwaway fashion. It's something to be passed down generations. Now that's real class.

What next?

In this buyer's guide to tweeds we explore how tweed is produced, defined and used, and how its symbolism developed historically. So please read on. Our series covers

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