The Sartorial History of British Tweed
From peasant functionality to high fashion- here’s the history of tweed.
Tweed has a long and distinguished history. From its role as the fabric of royalty, fly-fishing, the academic academy, and right through to a certain fictional detective (Mr Sherlock Holmes - in case you missed the reference), tweed has become something of the national dress in Britain. Far more than a fabric, the story of tweed weaves together class, gender and fashion in a legacy as rich and complex as the fabric itself.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the sartorial history of tweed and break down the key tweed designs you need to know. So, sit back and dip into one of the most iconic fabrics in sartorial history.
What's in a name? The etymology of 'tweed'
Did you know that the name ‘tweed’ burst into the sartorial lexicon because of scruffy handwriting? Rumour has it that back in the 19th century, before there were smartphones and email and when communication was conducted through handwritten notes, a Scottish mill wrote to a British buyer offering a new fabric. They penned a note and explained their wonderful new fabric ‘tweel’ (a name which referenced the technique of making the fabric). When the merchant read the letter, it seems the ‘l’ wasn’t clear enough and he decided it must be ‘tweed’ after the river in Scotland of the same name. He ran with it. And, hey presto, tweed entered our fashion vocabulary for good.
Country roots: The origins of tweed
The story of tweed begins in the 18th century on the islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides, a region known for its brutally cold winters and generally damp and hostile climate. Islanders needed a fabric that could stand up to the cold whilst also being flexible and comfortable to wear for long days working in the outdoors. Their solution? A tweed hand-woven by crofters called ‘The Big Cloth’. Made from coarse-cloth woven wool, and using the ‘twill’ technique (where a diagonal line runs through the fabric), it was denser and heavier than other fabrics of the time - perfect for long winters and rainy skies.
Thankfully, the Islanders didn’t keep the secret to themselves and started to export the fabric to mainland Scotland. The Scots loved it, and by the 1830s tweed as we know it today was a fashion staple for outdoorsmen and farmers all around Scotland.
Social Climbing: Tweed and English Aristocracy
Tweed’s origins may have been humble but it certainly didn’t stay that way. In the 19th century, wealthy English aristocrats with country escapes in the highlands began to catch onto the tweed trend - perhaps most notable of all were the long-time lovers of the Highlands, the Royal family. These wealthy Brits donned their tweeds for all their country excursions and activities - nobody out shooting, hunting, riding, or walking would be seen in anything other than their finest tweeds.
Naturally, tweed crossed the border and by the Edwardian era had become a bonafide must-have for the elite. As with the first islanders who rocked tweed, Edwardians and Victorians alike loved tweed for its versatility, warmth and breathability. By the 1860s a lighter, less dense version gave way to tweed suits and became the top choice for the Victorian aspirational middle class. Around the same time, tweed’s association with endurance, strength and a decidedly rural masculinity opened up to female fashion too.
Enduring style: Tweed today
Over the last few centuries, tweed’s fashion status has waxed and waned; at one point becoming a staple for dusty professors and ageing aristocracy. But thanks to the likes of fashion heavyweights Coco Chanel, Galiano, Vivienne Westwood and David Gandy, tweed is experiencing a comeback. Today, no dapper gent’s wardrobe is complete without a well-made tailored tweed suit.
Know your tweeds: Key kinds of tweed
Did you know that tweeds aren’t actually united by a specific weave like most other fabrics? The tweed family is instead bonded by its texture and earthy colour palette. So, if you’re interested in paying homage to heritage and investing in an ancestral fabric, knowing your tweed from another’s is a great place to start. And we’ve got you covered. Here, at Empire Outlet, we provide fabric samples of all of our tweeds so that you can get to know each tweed better and find your perfect fit. Here are some of our top sellers:
Houndstooth tweed is made of a large broken checked pattern that uses pointed shapes instead of squares. Semi-resembling the teeth of a dog, houndstooth is a larger take on the dogtooth pattern.
Barleycorn tweeds have a flecked pattern which gives it a coarse appearance. Complex colours are often used in intricate patterns which can often look like a block colour from a distance- now that’s smart design!
We have a whole blog on the ever-popular Herringbone tweed. But for a stripped-down version, the herringbone pattern is made up of columns of slanted parallel lines that create a kind of ‘v’ shape.
Check tweeds have a distinctive square pattern made up of horizontal and vertical lines. You can opt for small check or large check depending on your taste.
Estate tweeds have royal ancestry. Each estate would commission its own distinctive version for their house to wear - like a kind of uniform for gamekeepers and landscapers. Prince of Wales is one of our favourite estate tweeds.
Now you know the history, head over to our fabric samples and get your own. Fabric samples are a great way of seeing how colours and patterns in the natural light and against your skin colour so you can make sure you’re only rocking the very best.