Guides and Insights

Tweed types - tweeds named by region, purpose and breed

Tweed types - tweeds named by region, purpose and breed
By Nick Fiddes

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.

This article explains the third main way in which these fabrics are distinguished: a tweed's source or origin. Tweeds are classified by source or kind in three distinct ways. Some names refer to their geographical origin, like Harris Tweed or Donegal Tweed. Others are named after their function, such as Gamekeeper's Tweed, or Thornproof Tweed. And a third group takes its name from the breed of sheep from which their wool was shorn, including Shetland Tweed or Cheviot Tweed. Each tweed has its own unique character, and which you choose depends on your own needs and tastes.

These groupings can of course overlap. So a fabric might easily be termed both a Thornproof tweed and a Harris Tweed. We'll take a brief look at each, to help you choose from our world-leading choice of quality tweed fabrics and tweed products from the British Isles.

Regional Tweeds

Although by name at least tweed first originated in Scotland, various regions of the British Isles produce high quality tweed fabrics. Each has its own character, depending on factors like the breed of sheep, the traditional weaving style of the area, and even the local water. Here we'll outline the main localities you'll come across.

Harris Tweed

For many the name tweed conjures up an image of Harris Tweed. Loved the world over, Harris Tweed has a distinctive character unlike any other fabric. Traditional Harris Tweed uses 100% virgin wool and organic plant-based dyes, blended in rich complex shades made up of up to a dozen colours of yarn. Over the centuries a wonderful heritage of patterns and natural colourways evolved in shades inspired by the beauty of the Hebridean landscape, mostly woven in the distinctive open yarns for which the islands are known. The very recognisable quality of Harris Tweed is much inspired by the wild nature of these islands.

harris tweed

Indeed it is so unique that its production is regulated by a special Act of Parliament of 1909, which allows it only to be woven in the cottages of the Islanders themselves. This law defined what wool could be used, and where it could be woven. It stipulates that only cloth woven in the Outer Hebrides would be eligible to be called "Harris Tweed" (Clo Mor or Clo na Hearadh in Gaelic). And it also specifies that Harris Tweed must be hand-woven by human power alone, which takes place in islanders' homes. The yarns are spun in a few mills, to which the woven fabric is also returned for finishing and certification.

Harris Tweed is still always woven with 100% virgin wool. But the yarn is no longer hand spun. This became impracticable with the introduction of the pedal-driven Hattersley loom as demand increased and the industry expanded. These faster looms required more regular yarns than were possible with hand-spinning. And as local wool production in the Outer Hebrides was also too low to satisfy the industry's needs, the rules were amended to allow fleece from elsewhere in the UK.

Harris Tweed was traditionally a coarser, thicker, fabric, less tightly woven than other tweeds. Its open weave gave the fabric a naturally stretchy and almost spongy texture. But the hairier, rougher quality could feel quite scratchy against the skin. So today lighter Harris Tweeds more suitable for modern tailoring have been developed, popular with leading designers. This evolving practicality was famously marked around the zenith of Harris Tweed's popularity by its use in a special range of Nike shoes.

A few years ago this wonderful heritage seemed destined to be lost, when a businessman bought and 'rationalised' the industry down to a handful of designs, which you can read more about in our history of tweed. Thankfully this existential threat has now passed. And every piece you buy helps this wonderful tradition to survive, whilst you enjoy a fabric that is literally like nothing else on earth.

Highland Tweed or Estate Tweeds

Tweeds devised by wealthy landowners of the Scottish Highlands to brand their estate staff in the nineteenth century formed a key part in the development of the materials and patterns we know as tweeds today. You can read about this in more depth in our article on the History of Tweed.

Edzell Estate tweedEstate Tweeds typically have a windowpane check, often over a herringbone pattern, and can be woven either as plain or twill weave. But the variety of distinctive patterns, colours, and weaves found in Estate Tweeds endows modern tweed producers and purchasers with an almost endless choice. Highland Tweeds tend to be quite regular and finely finished (though each fabric has its own unique character, so this is just a generality). So they may well be suited to tweed garments or furnishings where a sophisticated feel is desired.

But although sometimes termed Highland Tweeds, these fabrics are by no means always woven in the Highlands. The mills may be in the Highlands or Islands of Scotland, or even in the Borders or elsewhere in the British Isles. The name refers to the location of their original customers. And now even that destination makes up only a tiny proportion of the client base. Estate tweeds are in effect now public property, still honouring their original designers but bought by discerning customers all over the world.

Islay Tweed

Islay Tweed is another unique tradition, with a distinctively untamed character not unlike that of Harris Tweed, but with a charm and feel all of its own.

Braveheart Islay plaid tweed

First established in 1883, and still using old Victorian looms, our Islay Tweed mill has designed and produced plaids for many Hollywood blockbuster movies, including Braveheart starring Mel Gibson (the Braveheart Plaid fabric is available to purchase) Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks, Rob Roy starring Liam Neeson, Far and Away starring Tom Cruise, and many more.

The reason for this popularity where the material's evocative quality is all-important is the unique old-fashioned character of the tweed the Islay Mill produces. We are delighted to offer Islay Tweed fabrics both as cut lengths and also ready-made (to order) as a wide range of unique products.

Borders Tweed

The name Borders tweed refers generically to any tweed produced by the weaving industry of the Scottish Borders (adjoining England). As such they include tweeds produced at our own heritage mill, DC Dalgliesh of Selkirk.

border tweed

Border tweeds are available in a range of weights. The lighter varieties typically have a finer, smooth feel. But woven more thickly at a heavier weight, the tight weave provides a thorn-proof fabric, which is a popular choice for country estates and outdoor sports.

Donegal Tweed

Though tweed first originated in Scotland, quality tweeds are also produced in England, Wales, and Ireland. Today the Irish industry centres on beautiful County Donegal, which lends this fabric its name.

Donegal tweed can be hand-woven or power loomed. It is typically loose-textured, soft and supple, but also quite coarse. Mostly Donegal tweed is recognised for a speckled effect from dots called "neps" or "slubs" often striking in contrasting bright colours, which can be on on plain backgrounds, herringbones, checks, or any pattern. Some say these flecks at random intervals refer to this county's wild and diverse landscape. Certainly they give the fabric an attractively rustic, casual, or sporty look which can work well in sports jackets, or paired with a tattersall shirt.

Unlike Harris Tweed whose provenance has been closely protected, Donegal tweed never achieved such status. Though the name comes from a specific geographic location, the term "donegal" can refer today to any tweed with this characteristic flecked pattern. But properly it should come only from that single county.

Saxony Tweed

Although Saxony Tweed originally derives from the region of Saxony in Germany, today it is widely woven, including in Great Britain.

Its history began with sumptuary laws in the Middle Ages, which banned Christian parts of Spain from exporting their Merino sheep or wool. As the church's grip loosened, the King of Spain sent a small herd of these sheep to his cousin in Saxony in 1765. That herd was then bred until the state of Saxony held around four million Merino sheep by the turn of that century.

Saxony Tweed is notable for a short pile and a particularly fine and soft texture. The high-quality merino wool produces comfortable clothing, such as sport jackets, trousers, and suits - particularly when woven as a mix of woollen and worsted fibres.

Yorkshire Tweed

Yorkshire Tweed is a Thing, because so much tweed comes from Yorkshire. The county was long the heart of weaving country in England, and remains home to what survives of that once great industry. In practice this means a considerable number of mills producing quality fabrics and specialist fabrics, which can still compete on their own terms against low-cost overseas producers.

Other Geographical Tweeds

You might also encounter Welsh Tweeds, West of England Tweeds, or others named after the regions where they are woven.

Functional Tweeds

Another group to tweeds are named for their uses or functions. These should be mostly self-explanatory. But to ensure there is no mystery, here is a quick guide.

Thornproof Tweed

The name says it all. A thornproof tweed is particularly tough and should be resistant to most natural tears and punctures. This makes it very practical for outdoor pursuits like hunting, or for hiking where you might encounter jagged bushes like gorse or brambles.

Thornproof tweed was first recorded in Canada, where troops at the 1870 Red River Rebellion wore this fabric that had been specially made to repel the thorns that were prevalent in the area. It is woven with high twist fibres to produce an unusually robust cloth. And if the fabric is ever torn or holed, it can be self-repairing. Just rub the damaged area together and the fibres may magically heal.

The name of course describes the quality of tweed material, and not any particular pattern. But thornproof is commonly woven for garments like hunting suits as a muted green or plain grey-green fabric, with or without windowpanes.

Gamekeeper Tweed

The defining characteristic of Gamekeeper Tweed is warmth and weather resistance. It is made with a heavier weight of fabric for ultimate insulation during long days out in the cold.

As camouflage is typically of importance to estate workers, Gamekeepers Tweed tends to take its design cues from Scotland's natural landscape. It can be found in many patterns, weaves, and hues. But all tend to be characterised by their capacity to blend into rural scenery.

Sporting Tweed

Sporting tweeds share much in common with Gamekeeper Tweeds. But in this case warmth is not the primary consideration (as hip flasks help to serve this purpose!). Camouflage is instead the major factor that determines the design of a Sporting Tweed.

Each Sporting Tweed has been created to help hunters blend into the landscape characteristic of a particular hunting estate to maximise their chances of stalking animals or birds unseen. Colours would be selected for optimal invisibility in their own locality. This imperative, driven by social rivalry between estate owners to brag about successful days out with their guests, underpins much of the variability of tweed designs that survive to this day.

One story that illustrates this enthusiasm to determine the most effective camouflage comes from the Strathconon Estate. The estate owners commissioned a local weaver to design eight distinct colour combinations for potential tweeds, in which they then clad hunters in an effort to find out which provided most cover, before choosing the one that seemed to work best.

Supersoft Tweed

An innovation in recent years has been the development of tweeds marketed as 'super soft'. Unless woven or blended with a notably soft fibre such as goes into cashmere tweeds, there is usually an element of hype in this description. Few customers for whom softness is the main consideration look to tweeds as their first choice.

These products are nonetheless distinctly softer than the rough tough fabrics for which tweed is best known. We would still suggest wearing an undergarment if you're buying a supersoft tweed dress, for example.

Tweed Wool Breeds

A third set of tweeds are designated by the breed of sheep that goes to produce their wool. Different breeds produce different qualities of wool, determined both by their genetics and by the nature of the environment in which they are reared.

Cheviot Tweed

Cheviot Tweed is named after the white-faced sheep that were traditional to Northumberland's Cheviot hills in England, and also the Scottish borders. Cheviot fibre is generally thicker, coarser, and heavier than yarns that go into other tweeds.

This wool is generally quite tightly woven as a woollen fabric, not worsted. And it can of course be dyed and woven for any pattern. This produces a thick material that is bright and lustrous and quite soft, but also fairly stiff and even sharp to the touch. It drapes well and holds a crease. It is so tough that some tailors refer to it as "ball proof" (let's assume they mean gun shot) though that's probably overstatement.

Cheviot's durability make it sought after for both country wear and regular city wear, although its heaviness might seem a little out of place in a very formal setting. Its is probably more suited to outerwear such as overcoats, casual suits or sports jackets, and business jackets with or without vests. Its warmth and water repellant properties make it perfect for cooler climates or weather.

Shetland Tweed

Although it sounds like another geographical tweed, in fact Shetland tweed refers to the breed of sheep from which its wool is produced which is then sold worldwide. Our main range of Shetland tweed is in fact woven in the Scottish Borders. These animals are still reared on the Shetland Isles though much Shetland wool also comes from further afield so you may wish to check if this matters to you.

We wouldn't call Shetland wools exceptionally fine. But Shetland Tweed is notably softer and more delicate than cheviot, or even spongey. And it can produce quite a delicate and even slightly shaggy finish. Taking advantage of these properties, this is often woven into a tight, thin tweed.

Shetland Tweeds are the epitome of casual tweed, typically going into jackets, suits, dresses, skirts, and accessories. It's an excellent tweed for day to day wear, where ease of wear is more of a priority than robust durability.

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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