Guides and Insights

Understanding tweed - a buyer's guide

Understanding tweed - a buyer's guide
By Nick Fiddes

Scotland is famously home to not one but two renowned fabrics, tartan and tweed. Oddly they're not as distinct as you'd think. You can have tartan tweeds, or tweed tartans. Confused? Don't be. Read on and you'll soon understand tweeds better than anyone you know!

So let's start by defining tweed technically, so you're clear exactly what tweed is and what it's not. Even so-called experts muddle this up.

What is tweed?

The key thing to know about tweed is that it is not a pattern (as tartan is). Tweed is a distinctive quality of fabric, which is the technical term for its nature as a woven material. A tweed effect can be achieved in almost any material, though it's traditionally woven in pure new wool (see below).

Tweed is produced by dying raw wool, after washing, but before it is spun. So tweed fabric is termed fibre-dyed. To achieve the desired tone of a tweed yarn, multiple colours or shades of dyed yarns are skilfully blended. These mixed shades are then carded (straightened) and spun into yarns of mixture colours for weaving. Subdued, interesting colour effects (heather mixtures) can then be further obtained by twisting together differently coloured woollen strands.

mixing harris tweed wool

It is this rich complexity at the fibre level that give tweed materials their unique depth when woven. There is no constraint on the colours that might be used. But traditionally most tweeds are still woven in more muted natural shades, as many customers feel this suits the nature of the material. And tweeds can be woven in almost any pattern, though it is best known for a range of characteristic patterns.

That's why tweed is quite different to the worsted fabrics of which tartans for example are typically made. These are normally yarn-dyed, giving a flatter, more uniform tonal effect to the colours in the finished fabric. And that's why you can have a tartan pattern woven in a tweed material.

Any weaver on earth could produce a tweed-like fabric. But the best tweeds certainly come from the British Isles. So on Scotweb CLAN we supply only Scottish, English, or Irish tweeds, of which we've perhaps the world's finest range.

For a fuller appreciation of how tweed is created, I'd invite you to spend a few minutes watching this video I made a few years ago about Harris Tweed production. Although each tweed mill's process may differ in detail, this will help you understand the rich heritage and skill that goes into every piece of tweed produced.

What tweed isn't

You'll sometimes find fabrics being described as tweed, when they are not. Some people make the mistake of using the word as a generic term for almost any flecked fabric with a rough surface, particularly when in earthy, natural colours. In the US in particular, and sometimes even in the UK, it's not uncommon to see a jacket referred to as tweed just because it has a windowpane check, for example.

But that's wrong. At best these fabrics could be termed 'tweedy', or tweed-like. But unless they're made of blended fibres prior to spinning, they shouldn't be considered tweeds. Traditional tweed is an archetype from which many other fabrics draw inspiration. But the distinction remains important. Real tweed is too rich a heritage to discard so carelessly.

On the other hand, some purists might criticise our view that a fibre-dyed yarn can be considered tweed even when not woven in 100% pure new wool. After all, Harris Tweed is defined in law as being made only from virgin wool. So why should a cashmere tweed jacketing fabric in the same style count? Because it's a historical accident that tweed weavers normally used wool, and even mixed fibres such as silk or linen may sometimes have been included. Tweed's essential nature lies ultimately not in its material nor in its weaving, but in its spinning.

How tweed began

Tweed's origins, and therefore its modern reputation, lie in its development as a weatherproof fabric for rural workers. There's a fascinating story in how this was adopted by first landowners jealous of Highland traditions to identify their Estates; then how it spread to being a ubiquitous uniform for country sports and indeed any outdoor pastime; and finally how that took over both prestige tailoring then later fashion.

old tweed shepherd's plaid

But this is a tale all of its own. So when you've finished this article, we suggest you follow on to the next part of this series on the history of tweed.

Different kinds of tweed

Another aspect of tweed which many find confusing, but need not be, is all the different names given to its many types. But it's not really so complicated. These all fall into at least one of three overlapping groups. Firstly there are tweeds distinguished by their place of origin, like Harris Tweed or Yorkshire Tweeds. Then there's tweeds identified by the breed of sheep from which their characteristic wool was shorn, such as Cheviot Tweed or Shetland Tweed. And finally there's tweeds named after their distinctive characteristic or use, like Thornproof Tweed, or Sporting Tweeds.

Again, this will take a lot more depth to explain in full. So please review our article on the different types or sources after which tweed is named.

Tweed patterns

Most tweeds are still produced in a range of traditional patterns that suit this fabric's exclusive character, though modern tweeds are certainly made. It is these that we'll describe for you in this article, to help you choose the ones you like best. Common designs include Unpatterned, Barleycorn or bird's eye, Windowpane or Overcheck, Herringbone, Houndstooth or Dogtooth, Checked, Gun Club, Prince of Wales, Striped, Tartan, Plaid, and other types of Patterned tweed.

Each of these tweed patterns is covered in greater depth in our illustrated article on the traditional patterns in which tweed is woven.

Tweed materials

There's no question that proper tweed is almost always made of pure new wool. However, it can be argued that because tweed's essential character is defined by its rich mixture of colours at the fibre level, it need not always be only wool. So you can also have cashmere tweeds, silk tweeds, mixture tweeds, and so on.

If you'd like to read more on this subject, please explore our article on the different materials of which tweed is made.

How to wear or use tweed

There are so many tweeds, and so many garments made from tweed, it isn't always totally obvious how best to wear these. To make it easy, we've put together a short guide to how tweed is best used in a range of garments, including Countrywear, Outerwear, Jackets for women, Jackets for men, Skirts, Suits, Waistcoats or vests, Dresses, Trousers, Hats & caps, Bags & accessories, and even tweed shoes. This also touches on tweed's use for furniture or furnishings.

tweed bicyclists

So if you're uncertain before buying, take a look at our article on tweed garments and how to wear them.

Caring for tweed

Most wool products are recommended to be dry cleaned only.

However, at your own risk, you may find gentle hand-washing in cool but never hot water is an alternative. And this is certainly best for special wools such as cashmere which would not normally be trusted to dry-cleaning. If hand washing, make sure this is suitable for every part of your garment. For example jackets may be constructed with details like interfacing, lining, and shoulder pads, which washing could damage. After washing, lay it flat to dry, to avoid stretching. Tweeds are generally wrinkle-resistant, so ironing is unnecessary.

If you don't want to hand-wash, your garment might be freshened with steaming, which kills most germs and bacteria, helps eliminate odours.

Localised stains can be removed carefully with a with a mild detergent or other suitable topical treatment. Carefully blot at fresh spills with a towel. Do not rub! Spot-cleaning is the best option for most stains on tweed.

For storage, the ideal for tweed fabric and clothing would be a cedar chest. But any cool dry place is fine, as long as your garments are protected from moths. If storing for long, we recommend bagging. In particular avoid anywhere damp; relative humidity should never exceed 50%. Wool jackets are best hung on thick or padded hangers to help keep their shape.

In the end, the best advice for tweed is the same as for any fabrics, which is to follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Any fabric can involve not only different fibres, but also various weaves, or special finishes, each of which might require its own care. So check.

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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