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A Brief History of Tweed

Scottish heather landscape

According to legend, the name “tweed” is the result of a copying error, where a London cloth merchant misspelled the Scottish word tweel as tweed, confused by the river Tweed. More likely, the word is derived from the word tweeled (meaning twilled).

The term tweed commonly refers to a variety of wool fabrics woven in a rough, multicoloured twill structure. The rugged cloth's great wind and water resistant qualities still makes it the standard wear in the British Isles for shooting, fly-fishing and other country sport activities.

During the early nineteenth century many estates in Scotland were sold in by money-strapped Highland chiefs and landholders to English nobles attracted by the country north of the Border. In 1848 Prince Albert purchased the estate of Balmoral from the Farguharsons of Inverey. Now every gentleman of the leisure class needed an estate of his own, and if he could not afford to buy one, he rented one.

Gun Club Tweed JacketSoon it became fashionable among the new owners or tenants to commission special tweeds for their estates. They wanted to take on the tradition of having their retainers clothed in an estate pattern but had no right to a tartan. In addition, they wanted functional hard wearing fabrics that would provide camouflage for the stalkers – and even the brightest of these patterns do blend in with the heathers and mountain scenery.

When Price Albert designed his Balmoral tweed around 1850, estate tweeds were all the rage. The diversity of patterns and colours found in tweed today is in fact much obliged to the estate tweed idea. Once the tweed pattern was akin to the regimental tie or the school crest. Today available for everyone, many patterns are still the same.

According to Edward P. Harrison, in his renowned book Scottish Estate Tweeds from 1995, the first estate tweed is credited as the Glenfeshie, a simple black and white Shepherd check with a red overcheck. It was commissioned around 1835, for the ghillies and keepers of that estate. Many early estate tweeds were variants of the old Shepherd check, which in smaller scale or with a slight modification also gives the dogtooth pattern. In 1846 the Coigach estate used two alternating darker colours together with the white transforming the Shepherd to what is today known as the Gun Club. The pattern was 1874 adopted by one of the gun clubs in the U.S., and Gun Club has been its popular name ever since.

Glen Urquhart tweedAnother well known pattern is the Glen Urquhart check. Also a simple black and white mix, but in an intricate pattern. In the twenties Prince Edward of Wales brought it outside of the British isles, adding brown to the mix, and a subtle colour over-check. Today just called Glen check or Prince of Wales, the pattern is often used in lighter woollen flannels or worsteds, perhaps even made of cashmere. Once a hard wearing tweed pattern for shooting and stalking, it is now more common for having an espresso at the piazza.

Lovat tweedCreated in 1845 by mixing blue and yellow yarns, the marled green Lovat tweed still blends perfectly with the heather, bracken, bluebells and birches surrounding the Lovat estate. Lord Elcho took inspiration from the marled colouring of the Lovat to have the Elcho mixture created, a khaki cloth that became the first camouflage uniform for the London Scottish Regiment, and forerunner of others throughout the world.

A bespoke estate tweed may still be the exclusive uniform for both the employer and his employees of the windswept Scottish sweeps of moorland, scrub and heather. Thus, tweed may look a bit aristocratic to some, but its rustic heritage and its habit of covering all classes, makes it just as democratic as American denim.

Tweed carries with it a certain kind of low-key sophistication. In pop culture, for example, we have all seen how tweed subtly but unmistakably underscores the cultured elegance of The Lord, The Gentleman, The College Professor and The New York Intellectual. It introduces his character before he says a word.

Tweed is much more than a piece of cloth. It speaks of standards to live up to. And it is thus more than a statement: it is a promise.