Words by Tom Chamberlin – editor-in-chief of The Rake magazine and chief creative officer of Cigar Keep, he specialises in men’s style, British heritage, and a discerning luxury lifestyle.
Born in the Scottish countryside in the early 18th century, tweed is completely intrinsic to its surroundings, with a history that speaks as much to British farm workers as it does to game wardens and Royals alike. It’s one of the most naturally hard-working, all-weather fabrics, crafted from the wool of equally hardy local sheep.
As a long-term admirer, I’m of the belief that tweed has always been the most exciting fabric to wear – only a dullard considers it stuffy and restricted to country pursuits. Yes, the romance of its heritage is a potent draw, but the passion and technical skill that goes into making tweed, not to mention how beautiful it is to wear, is what truly makes it the king of fabrics.
The beginning of the thread
An excellent fact to kick off proceedings is that tweed is not actually its real name, we have all been duped into this fake terminology by a misread. The story goes – as told to me by Alan Cumming, the Creative Director of Lovat Mill, Purdey’s partner in tweed on the borders of Scotland – that: “In 1826, there was a gentleman named William Watson who supplied bales of tweel [the technical term for the weave of the fabric] to a merchant in London. For whatever reason, it could have been a misread or a smudge of ink, the word ‘tweel’ was mistaken for the word ‘tweed’. Fishing on the River Tweed was very popular, so the mistake wasn’t completely unforgivable, and suddenly Mr Watson saw he had a name for his product, and carried on ever since.”
So, the fabric became a brand and while its name might’ve been catchy, it was the practicality that made it such a popular choice – it really does keep you warm and dry in inclement weather. The development of synthetic clothing dyes in the mid-19th century meant that various estates began to create their own tweeds that were both distinct and stylish, and could also blend into the landscape. Imagine, for example, the granite pastures of Cawdor, which call for a black-and-white pattern; whereas the Glen Dye and Fasque Estates require a much richer, Pine-tree green.
At the same time, there was always the intent that that tweed should be marketable to the urban set. Victorian designers wanted to create clothing for the metropolitan well-heeled that would be deemed fashionable, and at the time, it was not considered stylish to wear country clothing in town. “If you look at some of the old books we have from the 1870s, some of the designs are pretty out there. You’d be surprised at the richness of colour,” notes Cumming.
The vanguards of change
One issue that was inevitably going to need resolving was the weightiness of tweed. To be truly practical it would need to improve on comfort levels, and be adaptable to modern life in the city – where a 20oz tweed would be stifling. Lovat were the vanguard of this change, bringing the weight down and creating technical tweeds to cater for wearers on all fronts.
Lovat has been producing tweed in the river town of Hawick since 1882. It’s now the town’s last working mill, where state-of-the-art Dornier looms allow for versatility and flexibility, resulting in tweeds that previous generations could have only dreamed of. Before the weaving itself begins, the wool is washed, dyed, blended, spun and warped onto the looms. It’s the unique twisting of Lovat’s yarns that helps to define the character of each tweed.
Some are driven by aesthetics, with bespoke colourful patterns, while others are designed for performance, including materials such as Kevlar, Lycra or Teflon to maximise durability. Once woven, the tweed is darned by hand to remove any flaws – a process that requires the finely tuned skill of a restoration artist. From start to finish, modern technology enhances the core traditional processes.
The future of tweed
“We have brought the weights down for Purdey, so you have high-performance, comfortable and lightweight tweeds, and you look bang on in the field,” says Lovat’s Chairman Steve Rendle. Both Cumming and Rendle have been working with Purdey for around 30 years, and though traditionally they would collaborate on field tweeds, they are now working much more on hybrid and luxury tweeds that don’t necessarily have to go anywhere near the world of field sports.
The fact that Lovat works with country shooting brands, estates and regiments is not altogether revealing in understanding the relevance of tweed today. What does give us an indication of the future of this fabric is the evolution of technical tweeds and the focus on adaptability for the needs of today’s wearer. It’s interesting that Lovat is working with the likes of Dries van Noten, Thom Browne and Ralph Lauren, a testament to how the fashion world is embracing tweed for its own, too. The reasons why all become clear once you’ve tried it – once a wearer of tweed, always a wearer of tweed, no convincing needed.