In Pursuit of Tweed
December 1, 2010 4 Comments
Cold, wet, and shivering – at some point during the 17th century, probably a lot earlier, a bunch of Scottish and Irish hunters gazed out onto their beautiful landscape thinking there must be a better way. Their choice of hunting attire had been limited to either chunky warm sweaters that restricted mobility, or thin cold ones that sent them packing up early and home empty handed. They turned to their bemused long-haired sheep for a moment, then back at the countryside, where with the help of some local artisans, tweed was born.
They would shave down their four-legged friends, dye their wool using various base pigments found in the local moss, lichens, berries and wildflowers and develop a warm, rugged, water resistant fabric that they could fashion into camouflaged coats for hunting expeditions. The process of making tweed is quite tedious, involving the carding, spinning, weaving and finishing of the various dyed pieces of wool into a multicoloured fabric whose colours blend effortlessly into the landscape. There is a really interesting video demonstrating the manufacturing process here. Now, had they known that their exhaustive efforts to create a camouflaged hunting fabric would be wasted on colour-blind prey, perhaps tweed would have never been invented.
We’ve seen a surge in interest for tweed this fall/winter season, following a huge endorsement from most of the fashion houses. One wouldn’t be surprised by designers such as Burberry, Vivienne Westwood, Aubin & Wills, or Thomas Pink staying loyal to their British heritage by incorporating tweed into designs season after season. However, American designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Rag & Bone, Michael Bastian for Gant, Ralph Lauren, as well international designers such as Japanese label Comme des Garçons, and many others have incorporated tweed into their collections going beyond the basic tweed sports jacket. We’re actually seeing tweed in everything from coats, jackets, suits, pants, ties, hats, shoes, and even doggy coats and motorcycle helmets (see my Facebook page for examples).
Just as champagne can only technically be called ‘champagne’ if it comes from the Champagne Region of France (everything else is sparkling wine), authentic tweeds are also governed by geography and process. There are several varieties of tweeds, but the most popular are the Harris and Donegal Tweeds.
Harris Tweed is made in either one of the isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. How serious are the Scots about their tweed? So serious, that it’s protected by its own Act of Parliament, which means that Harris Tweed cannot be manufactured anywhere other than the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and must be handwoven in artisans’ homes and not in factories. Only then can it carry the Orb of Authentication (see photo above). Donegal Tweed is made in the County of Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. Similar to Harris Tweed, Donegal Tweed is also governed by similar strict manufacturing guidelines using local wool, mainly under the Magee of Donegal and Company.
Grey, pale blue, and pale green monochrome Donegal Tweed sport jackets and suits offer maximum versatility. They will go with pretty much everything you own giving you a sophisticated look that you can dress up or down as you wish. Harris Tweeds on the other hand vary a lot more in colour with some shades leaning more towards Lovat green and others to brown from a distance, with intense colours jumping out at you from up close. They will sometimes mix windowpane or plaid patterns into the tweed for added complexity. Harris Tweed jackets paired with a distressed or brand new pair of dark blue jeans and brown shoes are guaranteed to work. Try to choose a dress shirt, crew neck, or turtleneck sweater that matches one of the more understated colours found in your tweed. If you want to be more adventurous try wearing a Harris Tweed jacket over something along the lines of a bright orange or red patterned sweater with hints of camel or brown like the one I have by Gant Rugger. Bright Polo and Rugby shirts also work well with Harris Tweeds.
On a final note, respect the heritage. For maximum quality, style, and durability insist on buying from designers who have used authentic British tweed fabric in their designs. Please check out my Facebook page for some of my picks. Happy hunting!