The History Of... Tweed: Country cousins

Jewellery supremo Lesley Craze began with nothing more than 10 weeks' training and a passion for precious metals. Imogen Fox reports

Imogen Fo
Sunday 04 October 1998 00:02

AS WE approach the shorter, darker autumn days there is only one sensible fabric to wear, and that's tweed. The catwalks were awash with tweedy tailoring, trousers and long skirts. Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein and Isaac Mizrahi were just some of the designers putting a new spin on a fabric with strong ancestry.

Tweed originated in Scotland in the 18th century and is traditionally a coarse cloth woven from pure virgin wool, usually in earthy colours. Scottish weavers wished to make a denser and heavier cloth, and by developing the "twill" (the diagonal line running through the fabric) they produced what is recognised as tweed today. The generic term came from a London cloth merchant mis-reading "tweel", the Scottish version of twill.

Tweed continued to be used throughout the 19th century, primarily for outer wear, as the fabric was hard-wearing and everlasting. Even today tweed is synonymous with men's suiting and coats.

One of the most famous makes is Harris Tweed, first woven in the 18th century by crofters in the Outer Hebrides. Introduced to the British aristocracy in the 1840s by Lady Dunmore, the cloth was used to make garments for the privileged to wear when hunting, shooting and fishing. To regulate and protect the fabric against imitations, the Harris Tweed Orb Certification Mark was created in 1909 - the oldest British mark of its kind - with the definition, "only tweeds woven in the Outer Hebrides would be eligible".

Harris tweed is the only fabric still manufactured by hand. Generic tweed cloth is associated with tradition and quality, but unlike cashmere or other wool products, can feel scratchy to the skin. Harris tweed is now manufactured in lighter weights, allowing for curvier tailoring popularised by designers like Galliano and Westwood, and the new, brighter colours make the fabric more versatile.

Susannah Conway

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