Tweed Through the Ages: A Brief History of Tweed

Red tweed suit

We all know what tweed is, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably a fan of the stylish yet practical fabric. But do you know where it came from, and how it evolved into the fabric we know and love today?

Let’s take a journey back in time to map the origins of tweed and its journey across social classes and countries, from peasants to royals, to everyone in between.

Tweed's Scottish beginnings

The origins of tweed can be traced back centuries to Scotland, where it was developed as a sturdy material suitable for peasants doing outdoor work. It was thick enough to keep them warm through those blustery and wet winters. 

A lot of Scotland’s tweed was produced on the country’s Western Isles, and by the late 1700s, the production of tweed was a booming industry for the islanders. They shipped their fabric to the mainland and further afield to England and Ireland. Tweed quickly became popular thanks not only to its thick wind-resistant texture, but also because of the interesting blending of earthy colours — much more interesting than other black and grey fabrics of the day.

In fact, it was through this trade that tweed got its name. It was originally called ‘tweel’, after the Scots word for twill. But the legend goes that in the 1830s, a London merchant got a shipment of the fabric and misread ‘tweel’, thinking it was a name taken from the River Tweed that flows through the Scottish Borders textile area. He advertised the fabric as ‘tweed’, and the name stuck.

Tweed’s journey to Britain’s elite

By the 1830s, tweed had become a fashionable choice for the country’s upper-class, particularly for outdoor activities like shooting and hunting. This was helped in part by the fact that notable figures of the day — like novelist Sir Walter Scott and Lord Chancellor Brougham — often wore bold tweed trousers.

Before long, tweed had been co-opted by the country’s elite, and was popular as country sportswear. Because it was worn for shooting and hunting, tweed became associated with masculine pursuits, physical strength, endurance, and power. In fact, tweed was reportedly worn by sherpas on the first-ever ascent of Everest.

From outdoor wear to the royal status

In 1848, Prince Edward purchased Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and designed his own unique Balmoral Tweed. It’s blue and grey with red stripes, and is still sported by the current royal family. 

Balmoral Tweed

Edward’s bespoke tweed pattern prompted other property owners to design their own distinct “estate tweeds” to differentiate themselves on outdoor hunting expeditions — a tradition that is still upheld today

Tweed’s association with the royals and wealthy estate owners helped propel the fabric into the national consciousness, and it became, even more, a sign of the upper class.

The birth of the modern suit

Within a few decades, tweed had evolved from country wear to formal cosmopolitan wear after tailors refashioned the shooting jacket into the lounge jacket. Paired with matching tweed pants and a waistcoat, the modern three-piece suit was born

Suddenly, tweed was a fashionable and respectable choice for city dwellers, and became more associated with respectability and professionalism than rugged country masculinity. In urban centres like London, anyone who was anyone could be spotted in tweed.

Tweed as a political statement

In the late 19th century, as women began to challenge the social coding of gender roles and typical female clothing, they embraced tweed to make a statement. The New Woman eschewed the traditional lace and silk clothing made for females, and instead, began wearing the three-piece tweed suits made so fashionable by rich men. 

Not only was it a bold statement against the Victorian ideals of femininity, but tweed pants made it a lot easier to walk and cycle around town.

Over the next few decades, tweed stayed in fashion thanks in part, to its practicality and sturdiness. In the 1920s, haute couture fashion designer Coco Chanel created a whole line of tweed skirts, dresses, and jackets for women, further establishing tweed as a symbol of wealth. A century later, tweed still remains a signature look of the Chanel clothing brand.

The reinvention of tweed

During the Second World War, tweed was marketed as a sturdy every-mans fabric that was both fashionable and practical. Women who remained home while their husbands went to war were responsible for making money and providing for the family. In response to this, one clothing manufacturer advertised a “three-piece suit for the wartime cycling girl”. The tweed suit was a combination of jacket, trousers and skirt, meaning a woman could “ride to work…in trousers and then change into a skirt”.

Once again, tweed was reinvented in the 1960s — the era when the fashion scene exploded. Designers revamped tweed into a fashion statement, foregoing the traditional earthy tones and introducing bold patterns and colours into their pieces. Quickly, tweed’s image became distanced from the country’s elite, and was now embraced by a young, progressive, and fashionable population.

Tweed today

As you well know, tweed is still going strong today. It’s worn by thrifty vintage shoppers, cosmopolitan businessmen, rural farmers working their land, the royal family, Doctor Who and everyone in between. It’s evolved into one of the most versatile fabrics with a long history and wide usage.

Every year, the Tweed Run sees hundreds of tweed fans cycling the streets of cities around the globe in traditional Victorian-era tweed to celebrate the fabric. 

Plus, big fashion labels have incorporated tweed into their designs: Nike and Doc Martens have tweed shoes, designer labels like Versace and Moschino produce tweed kilts and suits, and high street labels are following suit.

Modern tastemakers and fashion houses have declared that “tweed is chic again” — though many people will tell you it never fell out of fashion

And now you know the history, isn’t it time you invested in a stylish tweed suit of your own? At Tweedmaker we deal in high-quality tailored tweed suits that’ll guarantee you’re the best-dressed guy in the room. 

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