Guides and Insights
Tweed patterns - choosing tweed designs
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 piece we're covering the main patterns and designs in which tweed is traditionally produced. Some like checks and plaids are well recognised. Others like herringbones and windowpanes are much beloved by those who know fabrics, but may not be as instantly named by everyone. And others again such as the Prince of Wales or Gun Club will probably be identifiable only by those who are tweed lovers already. You'll find them all here.
We'll focus mostly on pattern rather than colour. Let's just say that thanks to its history, tweed has long been produced mostly in natural or even earthy colours (which can include purple heather or blue and yellow flowers of the field, plus the pinks of sunrise or reds and oranges of sunset). Most would agree such shades suit the fabrics best. But there is no reason that a tweed could not be woven in any colour that another fabric might be. It's simply the case that nature's tones are tweed's forte and its glory.
Some of these base patterns can be combined. For example, each Highland estate would typically commission its own distinctive tweed for its gamekeepers or for hunting, whose colour tones chosen to match the estate's local landscape and vegetation, for camouflage. This arrangement was so common that a herringbone tweed with an overcheck is sometimes referred to as an Estate Tweed.
Although Tweed is most associated with traditional patterns like herringbone and houndstooth, the most common pattern style of all is essentially plain. This means where the overall effect is of a single uniform colour.
But of course with tweed, nothing is that simple! No tweed is entirely plain, as the nature of its spun yarn means it always displays a complex depth of shades on close inspection.
What's more, various weaving techniques can add further richness of tone. So yarns can be marled in which multiple colours are combined in the strands of thread at the spinning stage. Or they can be flecked, so tiny outbreaks of strong shade are introduced to add an extra element of interest. Or a mingled heather effect can be produced in many tones and hues.
Unpatterned tweeds are available both in a plain weave, and as a twill which is a simple weave with a subtle diagonal pattern running through it.
In fact, plain tweeds can be so rich in dappled or mottled mixtures of colours, it becomes a matter of judgment or debate where a strikingly varied so-called plain tweed becomes a more rugged texture like Barleycorn or Birdseye.
The popular herringbone pattern (sometimes termed broken twill weave) consists of columns of slanted parallel lines. The direction of slope alternates with each column in a zig-zag, to create pleasingly fine 'v' shapes. Its name comes from the pattern's resemblance to fish bones.
The herringbone pattern is not only found in tweed. It is common to many textiles, especially in menswear. But it's in tweed that it finds perhaps its archetypal form. There can be few more characterful garments that the orthodox but always elegant herringbone tweed coat.
The earliest known herringbone pattern is from the Roman Empire, where it was known as Opus spicatum or spiked work. This was used for both walls and road paving. It was also a popular design for ancient Egyptian textiles and jewellery.
A typical thin herringbone in tweed might use a pattern of four threads alternating direction with the next four threads (4x4). But larger sizes of 6x6 or 8x8 are common, and can sometimes even up to as large as 12x12. Other variants are also possible such as mottled Herringbone, which adds extra colours for a more complex texture.
Herringbone is a popular choice for sports jackets, especially in the US, but also in Europe. Many colours are available, with dark or light browns, greens and greys being most popular, but also reds and blues.
Many Estate Tweeds combine herringbone with an overcheck in some contrasting shade. These, unsurprisingly, would also be referred to as overcheck herringbone tweeds.
Houndstooth or Dogtooth Tweeds
Originating in the Scottish Borders, Houndstooth is characterised by its broken checked pattern resulting in pointed shapes instead of squares. Said to resemble the jagged canine teeth, Houndstooth typically describes the pattern in a larger size, and Dogtooth when it is smaller. A tiny version has also been called Puppytooth, and another name is pied-de-poule.
Some associate classic houndstooth with a quite conservative, staid, or even stodgy look, for evening wear or office wear. But it's such an abstract pattern that it can just as easily look jazzy or rock and roll, depending largely on what it's combined with. Houndstooth has become one of the ubiquitous staples in any tweed producer's range. And arguably it should be a go-to mainstay of any wardrobe.
Windowpane or Overcheck Tweeds
As the name suggests, a windowpane pattern has large squares or oblongs in a contrasting shade, separated by an expanse of plain fabric. The name of course comes from its resemblance to a window frame around glass.
Where this is overlaid on a more complex pattern like Herringbone or Houndstooth, it tends to be given the name overcheck - because it resembles a large boxy check overlaid onto the other pattern.
Everyone knows what a check is. But just to be clear, it's a pattern of horizontal and vertical lines of equal width that create squares, usually small squares.
The characteristic small check might sometimes also be enhanced by a larger overcheck in a third colour. When this is done with two different overlapping colours, it's known as Gun Club tweed.
But there's one pattern that deserves a special name check (sorry!) In tweed traditions. The lineage of almost all checks can be traced back to the Shepherd's Plaid, or Shepherd's Check. This was a conventional and enormously practical garment worn by Border shepherds on the hills, woven in monochrome checks, from which most Estate Checks were later abstracted. In German-speaking countries it may be known as pepita check.
Barleycorn & Bird's Eye Tweeds
Barleycorn Tweeds have a prominent flecked pattern. Its name comes from the effect of barley kernels viewed close-up that its weave produces. This gives a randomly distributed and richly coarse appearance where the lively chaos of complex coloured flecks merge into a single shade from a distance.
Bird's-eye or birdseye tweed similarly has little points or flecks of contrasting twill in a colourful, vibrant texture. But whilst different producers use the term in their own ways, in birdseye they're typically laid out in a more regular arrangement than Barleycorn.
Gun Club Tweeds
The Gun Club pattern takes its name from a design adopted in 1874 by the New York Gun Club, based on the Glen Check or Glenurquhart check. That was one of the earliest Estate Tweeds, and is essentially a black and white Shepherd's Check with a contrasting windowpane overlaid in alternating darker and paler lines.
The Gun Club tweed name should refer to an underlying check (or sometimes today a dogtooth) in almost any colour combination, with a large overcheck of windowpanes which should properly be of two different shades.
Prince of Wales Tweeds
Glen check, or Prince of Wales check, consists of small and large checks in a windowpane design, and originally came from Glenurquhart in Inverness-shire. Favoured by the Duke of Windsor, it was hugely fashionable in the 1950s as an Ivy League style (think Don Draper from Mad Men).
This needs little explanation. Striped tweeds include one or more distinctive vertical lines to create visible stripes of various sizes.
Any tartan can also be woven in tweed fabric. The characteristic uneven texture of Harris Tweed in particular wonderfully evokes authentic old tartans.
What is the difference between plaid and tartan? In the end it's only that tartans have a name that is associated with some kind of family or community. So all tartans are also plaids, but not all plaids are tartans.
Plaid-style tweeds feature a pattern of horizontal and vertical lines, meeting at a 90 degrees angle to form a multi-colour grid. They are criss-cross fabrics, in two or more colours, whose shades blend as they cross.
This is our own catch-all category for any other tweed patterns that don't fit traditional looks. An example would be spots. But in theory almost any design is possible.
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
- understanding tweed;
- history of tweed;
- types or sources of tweed;
- tweed patterns (this item);
- tweed materials; and
- wearing tweed.
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