Tweed, with its distinctive stitching, is a classic in the textile industry. We find it in the latest collections, used as often for bags and accessories as for clothes. Once used for outerwear, like jackets and coats, today it is everywhere. This fabric has managed to traverse through the ages and reinvent itself. It is a timeless item that never ceases to attract us. But do you actually know what tweed is?
What is Tweed?
Tweed is a carded wool fabric with an irregular appearance that is woven by hand (on a loom) and of Scottish origin. It is a plain or twill weave fabric, made from multiple arrangements of threads, traditionally two-colored. This is what gives it that squared, chevroned, or grooved look. It allows the interplay of materials and colors, making it unique and recognizable.
This material is soft, resistant, comfortable, and waterproof thanks to the properties of wool. It provides good protection and is ideal for making outerwear. A tweed refers to a garment (suit or coat) made of this fabric.
There are several kinds of tweed on the market. The final result varies according to several factors, such as the type of yarn chosen, their colors, and above all the way in which they are woven.
The most famous variations are the “Harris Tweed”, typical of the wardrobe of the gentleman farmer, and of course the contemporary variant of tweed, the Chanel tweed, reinvented by the great French designer.
There is also the Cover-coat, Shepherd’s check, the Houndstooth, and the Herringbone. There is even a tweed pattern for each region in Northern Scotland.
There are several possible origins to the word tweed. Some believe it is a twist on the term tweel, the Scottish form of twill, which means to twill and therefore refers to a twill fabric. Others associate it with the river of the same name which is on the border of England and Scotland.
The fabric appeared somewhere between Scotland and Ireland. The latter is made from the wool of sheep called Cheviots.
Originally, it was worn daily by farmers in northern Scottish counties. This began in the 18th century. Weaving was done by hand at home in the traditional way in the northern islands of Scotland: the archipelago of the Hebrides. This is where the famous Harris tweed comes from.
The Harris Tweed
It all began in 1840 when Lady Dunmore, wife of the Lord of Harris, tried to spread the use of Harris tweed among her entourage to boost the local economy in Harris. It was in 1917 that the fabric really saw its rise. It is worn by gentlemen during their weekends in the countryside. The tweed industry was in full swing and was modernized with the introduction of new looms to create new patterns and colors.
In 1993, the Act of the Parliament of Great Britain replaced the Harris Tweed Association, originally established in 1909, with the Harris Tweed Authority. Harris Tweed fabric must meet specific criteria: It must be handwoven by Hebridean islanders in their homes, finished in the Hebrides Islands, and made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in the Hebrides.
All fabrics marked with the Harris Tweed Orb symbol are certified to comply with this law.
This legislation helps maintain the quality and reputation of Harris Tweed.
At first rather heavy (600-800 grams per square meter), with dark colors and woven in Cheviot sheep wool, this material has given way to lighter, less rough (340 grams per square meter) versions with more colors (red, orange, green checks, etc.) and made of merino sheep’s wool.
In the past, tweed was mainly worn in the countryside and used to make everyday outerwear (coat, jacket, hat), worn for activities such as hunting, fishing, and walking, both in Ireland and the UK. This fabric is truly waterproof, resistant and a good thermal insulator. Next, it was used for the production of costumes and suits.
Today this textile is widely used in contemporary fashion. It can be used for any clothing or fashion accessory. The variants that we see so much today were popularized in the 20th century by the fashion designer Coco Chanel, who made it one of the emblematic symbols of her fashion house.
The Birth of Chanel Tweed
Every detail of the Chanel fashion house was inspired by the defining elements of Coco’s life. In 1924, Coco Chanel borrowed tweed from the wardrobe of her lover of the time, the Duke of Westminster. She uses it first of all for its suppleness, for the way it “subjugates light and form”, but also for its heathered, colorless palette, reminiscent of the skies in the English countryside.
Tweed becomes her favorite material. She then commissions a Scottish factory to make her iconic tweed fabrics. In the 1930s, Coco Chanel began mixing the textile with silk, cotton, and even cellophane.
Chanel introduced tweed years later in 1954 when the Cambon street house reopened. The fabric took the form of the small jacket that still gives the brand the reputation that it has today. But Chanel’s version is not English tweed; it is softer, less washed, and ultimately more feminine. She works with wool to make it as light and soft as knitwear. “I brought the tweeds from Scotland; […] I made them from a variety of materials. I had the wool washed less, to keep it soft.”
The first to embrace Chanel tweed were American women (Jackie Kennedy), followed by French women (Brigitte Bardot). The craze for this textile has continued ever since, whether worn as a jacket, skirt, or full suit.
Starting in 1983, Karl Lagerfeld repurposed and reinvented tweed. He has it embroidered, fringed, and continued to extend it to all the elements of his collection, including accessories.
It was in the Lesage workshops that the first samples of “rewoven tweeds” were tested.
An incredible amount of work is done in the high fashion embroidery workshops: sequins, feathers, trimmings, and even crystal fragments endlessly enhance tweed, recreating an exceptional material. It is a true representation of creativity.
Karl Lagerfeld has succeeded in giving this old bourgeois fabric a seductive and contemporary side, without compromising it.
Every season, Chanel continues to reinvent tweed. While the most emblematic remains the black and white version, it is nowadays adorned with pink, yellow, and blue. Over the collections and seasons, it transforms itself in connection with the key colors of the moment. Recently, Virginie Viard dedicated the Ready-to-Wear Autumn-Winter 2022/23 collection to Chanel, paying homage to this iconic fabric of the fashion house.
Allowing for infinite combinations of colors and materials, this fabric has found its way into all wardrobes and seems to have a bright future ahead of it.