Tweed all about it

It’s big on the grouse moor and hot on the catwalk, yet Scotland’s favourite fabric is having a rough time. John Walsh on an industry that’s falling apart at the seams

There's a chill in the air, a dwindling of the light at 7pm, a hint of wood-smoke in the suburbs ... Autumn is sliding over us like a tartan blanket over the knees of a convalescent, after too much sun and sangria. Soon it'll be dark when we leave work, we'll be crunching through leaves and wearing wool next to the skin. And the clothes-conscious gentleman's thoughts will turn to tweed.

Chaps love tweed. It's like a comfort blanket after you've worn jeans or a sharp suit for too long. Tweed jackets, tweed caps, tweed plus-fours and plus-twos, tweed suits for the extrovert, hairy tweeds for the show-off on the grouse-shoot – we love its oddly-calming flamboyance. It's the only part of most men's suits and jackets which carries any hint of actual colour, such as orange, red or green. And its hues are the essence of autumn in Scotland: rained-on fields, turning leaves, birch trees, heather, bracken. But its commercial fortunes are now in uproar.

Some Scottish mills have been making tweed for popular usage since 1830 (the name supposedly derives from tweel, the Scots word for twill, and has nothing to do with the river Tweed) but Harris Tweed, the most famous variety – indeed, probably the most famous single fabric in the world – has been going for just a century. Its weavers simply body-swerved the Industrial Revolution: the islanders of Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra went on making cloth by hand and selling only to locals. But after 1903, they boldly added spinning machinery to the looms, and, reassured by the new Trade Marks Act, got themselves a certification mark (or patent) in 1909.

The look took off like a rocket. The new cycling, motoring and great-outdoors fans liked its warmth, as did moorland-based shooting parties. The bright young things of the 1920s loved its elegant browns, greens and yellows. Richard Hannay, the dashing, Canadian hero of The 39 Steps (written in 1915 and currently playing at London's Criterion Theatre) is always portrayed in tweeds. Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, in the most recent screening of Brideshead Revisited, loll about homoerotically in tweedy checks.

Today, the industry is in a remarkably schizoid state. In the Outer Hebrides, the Harris Tweed marque has all but ceased since a Yorkshire textile baron called, amusingly, Brian Haggas, bought the KM Group, which makes 95 per cent of Harris Tweed material. He decided to stop flogging cloth and make jackets instead – just one jacket in four colours. According to the current Monocle magazine, he now has 70,000 tweed jackets sitting unsold at his temporarily closed plant, their price cut from £300 to a pathetic £70 each. And his workforce has been laid off. A BBC Four documentary on the Harris disaster, Trouble Looms, is being broadcast tonight.

Elsewhere, though, there are signs that Scottish, not-necessarily-Harris, tweed is acquiring a new trendiness. Vivienne Westwood has been a fan of the fabric since the 1980s (she was taken to court by Harris Tweed for appearing to steal their "Orb" hallmark) and has been joined by Paul Smith, whose autumn 2009 collection is full of tartans, checks and tweed jackets, trews and waistcoats. His bespoke department reported an "occasional" Harris customer, but receives far more commissions for Donegal tweed in Ireland or Teviot tweed from the Lovat Mill in Roxburghshire. It's a question of lightness. Classic Harris cloth tends towards the coarse and the heavy – 18 or 20oz compared to classic worsted 10 or 11oz. Other medium Scottish tweeds weigh in at 14oz, warm enough to keep you going on the windy moors, without making you perspire awkwardly in public on the train home.

If you're feeling autumnally tweedy, what will it cost you? A Paul Smith bespoke, two-piece Lovat tweed suit costs from £2,300. Huntsman, the grandest and most venerable of Savile Row tailors, specialise in beautiful, subtly colourful tweeds from Islay where they make the peatiest malt whisky. One of their exclusive tweed designs will cost you £4,200 bespoke, or £2,500 made-to-measure (ie made to a "block pattern" and adjusted to fit you.) Norton & Sons, a few doors away, has by far the largest range of tweeds (about 1,000, along with their Harris Tweed exclusives). Their dashing director, Patrick Grant, the star of the Trouble Looms documentary, is refreshingly unstuffy about his clientele: he told me about the man who demanded they make him "the loudest suit at Goodwood races" and how pleased he was with the resulting design (a riot of purple, yellow, blue and red) named "the Bounder." They will make you a beauty for £3,000.

Tweed fans with limited budgets and limited waiting time should head for the reliably brisk (and extremely cut-rate) Apsleys of Pall Mall, where you can choose from a few hundred patterns, from Johnstons of Elgin, Porter & Harding of Edinburgh and the Lovat Mills, to convert into jackets, suits, plus-fours and plus-twos. They'll do it for you in two weeks or so, and a totally bespoke two-piece suit is a snip – actually more of a miracle – at £900.

And let us raise a shot glass of Laphroaig and hope that Harris Tweed is – as its eccentric owner faithfully promises it will be – pulled back from the brink of fashion Hades by this time nest year.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee