What is tweed? A guide to 'the big cloth'

Close Up of Green Tweed Jacket

Tweed has been central to British style for centuries. It's been used to make country clothing since the 1800s and, if you've ever owned a flat cap or country jacket, chances are it's graced your wardrobe.   

But what exactly is tweed?

"Tweed is a natural fibre textile, woven with a soft, open weave and made from wool", according to the Harris Tweed Authority. While this points us in the right direction, we'll have to dig a bit deeper if we want to define exactly what this material is and how you can incorporate it into your wardrobe.

In this guide, we answer all your frequently asked questions about this quintessentially British fabric. Read on to find out:

What is tweed made out of?

Tweed is made of tightly woven dyed wool. It comes in a variety of weights, weaves, and colours. This means there is no 'typical' tweed: the material ranges from plain and lightweight to colourful and heavy, covering everything in-between.

When was tweed invented?

Tweed was invented in the 18th century by Scottish farmers to help them endure harsh winters. During this time, tweed — which was known as Clò-Mór in Gaelic ('the big cloth') — was woven to be as weather-resistant as possible. It was extremely thick and didn't feature the colourful and intricate designs it's now renowned for.

Tweed as we now know it was developed in the 1830s, when the British aristocracy took to the material. Its weather-resistant properties made it the fabric of choice for the staff uniform at their country estates, and the upper classes would commission unique estate tweeds that would blend in with the surroundings of their grounds. 

In the 1840s, improved production methods made tweed more affordable. It became the fabric of choice for hunting and fishing clothing due to its weather-resistance, and the fact it helped the wearer camouflage into their environment. 

Over the decades, as tweed production became more automated, it became affordable enough for those outside of the aristocracy. Today, it's a quintessentially British fabric that you can use to add sophisticated style to almost any outfit, and no man's wardrobe is complete without a bit of tweed.

Where did tweed gets its name?

There are two theories about where tweed got its name. Some believe it stems from the fact the fabric originates from Scotland's Tweed valley.

However, there is also evidence that the material got its name in 1826, when a London clerk misread an order for 'tweel' — the Scottish for twill, after the weave of the fabric — and mistakenly advertised it as tweed in his shop. According to the story, the items flew of the shelves and the name stuck.

How is tweed made?

Tweed Swatch

Tweed was traditionally hand-woven on a loom. Today the entire process has been mechanised, but the process is largely the same.

First, raw wool is dyed and then dried in an industrial drier. These coloured wools are mixed together to make the exact shade of thread needed for a tweed. Each colour is weighed, roughly mixed by hand, and then blended in a giant industrial mixer to create the hue required for the pattern.

The mixed wool then goes through a process called teasing and carding, where it is drawn through a series of rollers covered in tiny spikes. This stretches the wool and makes sure the fibres are all pointing in the same direction so it can be made into thread.

Next, the wool is spun into thread and wound around yarns ready to be woven into tweed.

Loom weaving fabric

The complicated weaving process involves organising the threads into lengthwise warps and then loading these onto a loom. Whether man-powered or mechanised, a loom passes wefts (individual threads running sideways) through the warp (the group of threads running lengthways) to create the weave.

This process can create some vibrant and intricate patterns. The end result is also wind- and water-resistant, which is why tweed was such a popular material for outdoor clothing such as hunting and fishing gear in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Where is tweed made?

Dark Green Donegal Tweed Jacket

Green Donegal Dales tweed jacket

Tweed is made across the UK. However, certain types of tweed can only be produced in specific locations. For example, Harris Tweed must be "handwoven by the islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, finished in the Outer Hebrides, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides", according to the government's 1993 Harris Tweed Act.

Similarly, Donegal tweed (pictured above) can only be produced in the Irish county of Donegal.

What are the types of tweed?

Range of tweeds

Tweed comes in several different weaves. Each pattern creates its own distinctive effect, so it's important that you know the difference if you want to find the perfect tweed for you.  

Twill tweed

Twill is the simplest type of tweed. It's has a simple diagonal pattern running through it that is often extremely subtle, and usually a solid colour. This makes it a versatile material and perfect for wardrobe staples.

Overcheck tweed

Overcheck tweed jacket

Blue and red check Dales tweed jacket

Overcheck tweed is a twill weave that has been overlaid with a large check in a contrasting colour. This makes for an eye-catching effect — perfect for a focal point of any outfit.

Striped tweed

Striped tweed features vertical stripes in contrasting colours. This creates strong parallel lines running up the material for a striking effect.

Checked tweed

Checked tweeds feature vertical and horizontal stripes that combine to create small checks. This weave is often overlaid with a larger overcheck in a contrasting colour.

Herringbone tweed

Dark Green Harris Tweed Flat Cap

Dark green Harris Tweed flat cap

Herringbone tweed features an intricate pattern that closely resembles fish bones — hence the name. This weave is made up of column after column of slanted parallel lines that change direction every few threads, creating a distinctive 'V' shape.

Estate tweed

Olive/Green Harris Tweed Flat Cap

Olive Harris Tweed flat cap

Estate tweed is usually, though not always, a herringbone weave that has been overlaid with a checked pattern. It's known as estate tweed because Highland estates would commission their own unique version that blended in with the fauna of their estate so it would camouflage their gamekeepers during hunting.

Barleycorn tweed

Brown Wool Harris Tweed Flat Cap

Brown Harris Tweed flat cap

Barleycorn tweed features a course weave that resembles barley kernels close-up. From afar, this weave appears speckled, and can add a unique texture to your wardrobe.  

Houndstooth and dogtooth tweed

Green/Burgundy Dogtooth Check Tweed Jacket

Green and burgundy Dales tweed jacket

Houndstooth tweed gets its name from its resemblance to the back teeth of a dog. It often comes in monochrome, although you'll find it in a mix of earthy colours overlaid with a large contrasting check as well.

Plaid tweeds

Plaid tweeds feature bold stripes of varying widths and colours — not unlike tartan. These colourful patterns make a fantastic statement piece.

What to wear with tweed

Green Tweed Jacket and Magenta Corduroy Trousers

Lookbook outfit three

Today, tweed regularly graces catwalks from Paris to New York. However, you still have to be careful how you wear tweed today, as it can end up looking a bit outdated if you're not careful.

Fortunately, you only need to follow a few simple rules to look fantastic in this modern-day menswear staple.

First, if you opt for a bold tweed, make it the focal point of your outfit. For example, a blue and red check Dale tweed jacket will look fantastic paired with a white button-down Oxford shirt and navy flat front chinos, but can clash with something more colourful. If you're a fan of eye-catching tweeds, be sure to wear them with neutrals to avoid any fashion faux pas.

Secondly, be sure to match your footwear to your tweed. Classic styles like black Oxford shoes and Princeton loafers make the perfect partners to a tweed jacket. Full brogue shoes — which were originally designed to help Gaelic farmers navigate boggy fields — have been worn alongside tweed for centuries, which makes them the naturally accompaniment to this iconic fabric if you're going for a traditional look.

Tweed makes a fantastic accessory as well. Whether in the form of a Harris Tweed flat cap or country baseball cap, it can bring colour and texture to your wardrobe all-year round.

Lastly, remember that a tweed jacket can make a fetching overcoat. Keep warm in autumn and spring by layering a tweed blazer over a Shetland crew neck jumper — or a Donegal jumper if you're donning a Donegal tweed jacket. Originally prized for its weather-resistance, a quality tweed jacket will keep you warm and dry in all but the worst weather. When winter is well and truly upon us, complete your outfit with a sturdy, hardwearing men's coat.  

How to care for tweed

Close up of Charcoal Tweed Jacket

While tweed is renowned for being tough, it isn't indestructible. Because it's made of wool, tweed is terrible for shrinking in the wash, so always have it dry cleaned.

You should also be careful about how you store your tweed. Hang jackets on quality padded hangers and cover them in plastic to prevent moths from feasting on them, as they find the fabric particularly tasty. Fold trousers and accessories up neatly and store them in a drawer.

 

Hopefully we've answered all your questions about 'the big cloth' in this guide. If you want to add this fabric and its rich history to your wardrobe, shop our selection of men's tweed blazers and hats today, where you'll find a wide selection of fantastic tweeds.