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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

    £19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Recruitment Genius: Developer

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing, ambitious, en...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage