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What’s all the fuss about Tweed?

On September 13, 2018 By Rebecca Field In All things hiking Explaining Scotland Gear Advice

Can you imagine hiking or mountaineering in a Tweed suit?

That’s how they used to do it.  Here is an image of Sir Hugh Munro himself, styling a fetching tweed trouser on the snowy Highlands mountainside.  Not exactly Gore-Tex technology but, for decades prior to the 1970’s, Tweed was the activity-man’s gear of choice.  Certainly man vs. mountain.
tweed suit

Full on tweed suit – on trend in those days!

You cannot be more true to tweed than the Harris.  Defined in the Harris Tweed Act of 1993 as cloth that is “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”.
tweed badge

Authenticated tweed fabric from Harris must contain this badge or it is not guaranteed Harris tweed

Where does the name come from?

The original name of the cloth was tweel, Scots for twill, it being primarily woven in a twilled rather than a plain pattern.  It’s a rough, woolen fabric with a flexibility due to the close weave.  The patterns can be striped, herringbone or tartan.  The wool yarn is dyed before weaving to enable the multiple combinations of pattern and colour.
 
Whether myth or truth, the tale of the name came about by chance. Around 1830, a London merchant received a letter from a Hawick firm about some tweels. The merchant read the handwriting incorrectly, assuming that the name was taken from the river Tweed, that flows through the Scottish Borders, and the items were advertised as Tweed.  The name stuck!

Why is tweed so important to the islanders?

The sheep fleece has been used for centuries to provide comfort and shelter.  Then came the skills and equipment to separate the fibres; to comb the fleece, spin to produce wool yarn and weave into fabric.
Records states that surplus cloth was frequently used as a barter eventually becoming so important that it was considered a currency amongst the Islanders; paying rent in lengths of cloth or blankets.
By the end of the 18th century, this was a staple industry for crofters. Finished handmade cloth was exported to the Scottish mainland and traded along with other commodities such as dry hides, goat and deerskins.

Trademarking tweed

As popularity grew, legal protection of the tweed was essential.  The trade mark, the Orb, was granted in 1911.  Over the years the practices changed, there were disputes over the definition.  The true Harris Tweed is made by all Islanders of the Outer Hebrides – Lewis, North and South Uist, Benbecula and Barra, as well as Harris.  The decision being that the tweed was made in exactly the same way in all those islands.
 
Tweeds are an icon of traditional Scottish informal outerwear, the benefit of the material being durable and would provide a warmth against the wind of the mountainside.  I’m not so confident in the snow – I’m guessing the fabric could get heavy and would dry slowly but I think the men were far hardier ‘back then’.  Of course, the female mountaineer was not the done thing in the 20s and 30s.
tweed clothing

How mountaineering gear has changed through the ages – from tweed to gortex.

Popularity of tweed

Fast forward nearly 100 years, the demand skyrocketed in 2012.  Previous production was an average 450,000 metres in a year but in 2012, the weavers and mills of the Harris Tweed industry produced one million metres of Harris Tweed!! The highest production figures in 17 years.  That is just shy of enough fabric to reach from John O’Groats in the north of Scotland to the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast line.
tweed today

Tweed in fashion and accessories as you’ll see today.

Harris Tweed remains a sought-after fabric used in both High Street fashions and on catwalks in couture collections and the increase in popularity has led to the training of a new generation of weavers to meet production demands.  A fantastic continued tradition and island industry.
A visit to the Outer Hebrides is an eye opener!  Tour the local weavers shops or factories is just one activity that these stunning islands offer.
One of the cultural highlights of our Western Isles Wilderness is a visit to see a Harris weaver at work.
Check out our other blogs about the western isles:
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