Guides and Insights

Tweed wools and other materials

Tweed wools and other materials
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.

Tweed is not a pattern, and nor is a material. It's ultimately best seen as a type of yarn, produced by dying raw wool (or other fibres) after washing, but before it is spun. So tweed fabric is termed fibre-dyed.

Harris Tweed yarn colours before mixing

To achieve a desired tone for tweed yarn, multiple colours or shades of dyed yarns are skilfully blended using 'recipes' to achieve the desired overall hue. These mixed shades are then carded (straightened) and spun into yarns of mixture colours for weaving. Subdued, interesting colour effects such as heather mixtures can then be further obtained by twisting together differently coloured woollen strands. This richness down to the level of individual hairs is what gives tweed its unique character, and extraordinary depth.

Mixing dyed yarns for Harris Tweed

Tweed is generally produced in one of two types of weave. With plain weave, the warp and weft (lengthwise and crosswise threads) simply cross. The second is twill, in which a characteristic diagonal pattern runs through the weave, which may be obvious or so subtle that the fabric appears plain.

For most of its history, tweed has almost always been from Pure New Wool. However, not all tweeds are wool. So here we'll also discuss the other materials in which fabrics marketed as tweed may be produced.

Pure New Wool Tweed

Traditional tweed is made from wool. Indeed, for Harris Tweed this is enshrined in law, as to carry the Orb mark a Harris Tweed must be made from 100% pure virgin wool, spun on the islands. This is for good reason. For most of its uses, wool is the ideal fibre for tweed. Firstly, in its countless variations of flecked, nepped, plain and patterned multi-tonal complexity, tweed is unquestionably one of the world's most subtly beautiful fabrics.

Sheep on the Isle of Lewis

But loveliness aside, the fabric's heritage and traditions are all about being warm, weatherproof, and robust, ideal for harsh Scottish weather. Tweed is also one of the most practical and durable of fabrics. Its high-twist fibres, hairy springy texture, and lanolin in wool together create a tough, impenetrable barrier. This means that water is more likely to stay on the surface rather than soaking in makes it at least showerproof. Modern synthetics may give higher ultimate performance. But they're typically less comfortable to wear. So overall there's no material better suited to such a mission than pure sheep's wool. We would generally recommend a tweed fabric weight as follows:

  • Coats and overcoats 300-500 g/m2
  • Jackets and cardigans 250-350 g/m2
  • Dresses, skirts & accessories 200-300 g/m2

Some purists will even quibble about whether tweed produced from softer Merino wool should properly carry the fabric's name. But that's surely misguided. Merino is from a breed of sheep, so it seems just a little pretentious to dispute this as an entirely valid development.

But despite all its glorious strengths, it's also true that pure new wool tweed isn't ideal for every use. It is typically a little coarse against the skin, for example. This makes wool less than perfect for some more refined garments.

Cashmere Tweed

Where but Scotweb CLAN would you find a fabric as authentically pastoral as traditional tweed, but woven in the finest and most exclusive natural fibre in the world, pure Scottish cashmere? We offer a small but stunning selection of cashmere cloths that either take inspiration from tweeds, or qualify fully as tweeds, depending on your definition.

Of course cashmere tweed is probably only for those on generous budgets. But if your tastes run to the the very finest available, while wishing to cut a distinctive sartorial dash in the certainty that no one else you meet will be wearing anything remotely as good, here is the fabric for you.

Sumptuously soft, in striking distinction from the typically robust wools in which tweeds are normally woven. These are available in a range of historically accurate and utterly beautiful patterns. And of course it feels just fabulous too.

Silk Tweed

We'll give just a brief mention to so-called silk tweed, which is made from a nubby type of silk that's also referred to as raw silk or dupion. This can sometimes have flecks of colour superficially similar to a donegal tweed, for example. But it is not generally mixed at the fibre level, so despite appearances is not a tweed in the technical sense.

Blended Tweed, and other materials

Wool tweed is not a premium fibre. But nor is it cheap. This has created room in the market for budget alternatives that resemble tweed visually, but perform differently. Sometimes these are entirely from artificial fibres, mixed to create a tweed effect. But more often you may find wool blended with materials like viscose., in any proportion down to little real wool at all. These cheaper 'tweeds' are typically less robust, and may feel less pleasant on the skin.

But this isn't always a bad thing. You'll also come across tweed blends combining wool with silk, cashmere, linen, or alpaca for example. In these cases the motive isn't necessarily price reduction, but rather to introduce attributes of softness or abrasion resistance which improve the material's quality for specific needs or finishes, expanding their use options.

Carding wool before spinning for Harris Tweed

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

Also, if you're finding this interesting or helpful, please help other people find it. We'd really appreciate it if you'd link to this in your own blog, or on your social media. Thanks!

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