Fabrics and Material Used in Boys' Clothing: Tweed

Figure 1.--Boys at private schools in Scotland commonly wear kilts for Church and special occassions. Sometimes the school blazer is worn with the kilt, but much more commoin is a specially cut tweed jacket. This light green color, nuch like hether, is a popular choice. Note the epaulettes on the jackets. One boy here is wearing the school tie while the other boy wears a tie rather matching the tartan pattern of his kilt. The kneesocks are also for wear with the kilt and tweed jacket rather than the normal black kneesocks worn with the school uniform.

HBC is not sure when tweed was first made. Islanders in the Hebrides have woven a course fabric from their Blackface sheep for centuries. Only in the 19th century, however, did the term "tweed" appear--apparently by accident. We have noted this fabric in adverisements for turn of the century garments. Tweed fabrics are generally associated with Scotland and kilts are often worn with short tweed jackets. HBC is not yet sure, however, as to when tweed fabrics were first produced. Tweeds continue to be popular in our modern era. A tweed is a course wool fabric in a variety of weaves and cloth. One of the best known tweeds is Harris tweed. The most popular pattern is herringbone. Tweed continues to be a popular fabric for men's and boy' clothing, especially jackets. These tweeds are still made on traditional looms with treadle shafts, bearings and pickling rods. The warp beam feeds the wool into the loom length wise through bobbing heddles. Then a lever is used to strike a wooden shuttle ino the space between warp strands introducing a the weft or crosswise strands. Most Scottish weavers have learned their trade from their fathers. Often they began at a young age with simple tasks such as filling bobins.


HBC is not yet sure, however, as to when tweed fabrics were first produced. The fabric known as tweed was made for centuries by weavers on the Outter Hebrides and other locations in the Celtic world from the fleece of their sheeo. Only in the 19th century, however, did the cloth wown on Harris and the other islands of the Outter Herbides come to the attention of the wider world.


A tweed is a course wool fabric in a variety of weaves and cloth. It is a rough surface fabric. Of course the interesting queion is where did the term "tweed" come from. The word "tweed" appears to be an English corruption of the Scottish word "tweel", which in typical British fashion a variation of the English term "twill". This is a term that appears to date from the mid 14th century. There is a River Tweed in the Scottish Borders, but it apparently has nothing to do with the original tweed fabric. In fact tweed on the Hebrides has traditionally been called "big cloth" as a result of its heaviness and couse texture. It was also rain repelent because of the natural oils in the wool. All were very important qualities in the rough weather of the Hebrides. As far as we know, the term "tweed" was never used before the 19th century. There were many wool mills along the Tweed. They shipped twill cloth to London and other destinations. The Scottish term "tweel" refers to hand-woven woolen fabric traditionally made in the Scottish highlands and islands. No one knows, however, if this fabric originated in the Highlands or the southern Lowlands. There is a historical debate on this issue. The terminology became somnewhat complicated because of the River Tweed which forms part of the boundary between England and Scotland. English consumers began using the term because of te similarity of thre terms and the association of the River with Scotland. One account suggests that a busy London clerk, who no doubt knew that numerous mills were located along the River Tweed, mistakingly wrote "tweed" rather thasn "tweel" (the Scottish word for "twill" cloth). Or perhaps his writing looked like "tweed". However it occured, the term "tweed" was in common use by the mid-19th century. [Harris, p. 68.] The Scotts eventually adopted the term as well. Todat "tweed" has becoe the accepted term eventually became the general term for all carded "homespun" wool fabrics. This includes all the different types of tweed: Canadian, Cheviot, Donegal, Halifax, Harris, Irish, and Scotch tweeds as well as others.

Lady Dynmore

The term "tweed", however, is of much more recent origins. We have noted reference to "tweed" fabric in adverisements for late 19th century garments. Harris tweed was made fashionable in large measure by Lady Dunmore, the widow of owner of Harris. The Dowager Duchess of Dunmore was Catherine Herbert. Her husband purchased Harris, an island in the Outer Hebrides, shortly before he died in 1835. At the time the English romance with Scotland was in full swing and it was to receive even more attention because of the new Queen's interest in Scotland. Princess Victoria as a young girl became enamored of Scotland through literature and as queen, Prince Albert endulged that fascination. It was also good politics. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert when the children began arriving took to dressing the boys in Highland regalia, starting a trend among the upper class which was gradually adopted my the middle class. Althogh the kilt outfits that became common even in America were usually not full Highland regalia. Lady Dunmore for her part seems to have had a more practical interest in Scotland. She was impressed with the product of the local weavers and ordered that the keepers and gillies on her estatec wear suits made from the tweed. [BBC] She also sensed that money could be made by marketing it in Enhland. She had many friends in English upper-class society. She introduced the local tweed to her aristocratic friends as the pefect fabric for sporting clothes. [Harris, p. 71.]

Lady Dunmore was enormously successful in her marketing efforts. Tweed and especially Harris tweed by the turn of the 20th century was the favorite material for the sporting garments worn by Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen. Men visiting their hunting estates in Scotland would normally be decked out in Harris tweed garments. The materails was so much in demand that tweed began to be produced elsewhere in Scotland and England, often using more industrial weaving processs and attempted to pass their often inferior fabric as authentic Harris tweed. As a result the Harris Tweed Authority (HTA) was estabalished in 1906 to protect the interest of crofters and cotters of the Outer Hebrides. The HTA in 1909 was awarded a trademark for Harris Tweed, which is today one of the oldest trademarks still in use. [BBC]

Tweeds continue to be popular in our modern era. It is no longer seen as justvsuitable for the hunt, but rathera as smart, if conservative, attire for men and older boys. Tweed continues to be a popular fabric for men's and boy' clothing, especially jackets and overcoats. Another popular garment is caps, usually sporty flat caps.


Tweed fabrics are generally associated with Scotland and plaid wool kilts are often worn with short tweed jackets like the school boys seen here (figure 1). They come in a variety of colors. It is not only as part of a school uniform that tweed jackets are worn with kilts. Tweed jackets or sweaters are the mostvcommon garments worn with kilts when full Highland regalia is not worn.


The two most important tweed garments are jackets, suits, and overcoats. Many boys, especially British boys, remember the tweed suits and jackets theybhad a boys. One of our HBC readers, Anthony, remembers his Harris tweed suits that his mother was especially fond of. Tweed caps, usually flat caps are also popular. Apparently not all boys liked tweed. A Canadiann reader tells us, "Tweed, now that reminds me of a little overcoat my mother bought for me from Calps' in uptown Saint John when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I downright refused to wear it! I think it had a little hat with it too like Holmes wore! Never liked it when I was small, thought I'm not sure why. I was a very picky child and maybe I didn't like the feeling on me."

School Uniform

Most Scottish private schools have boys buy both blazers and tweed jackets. The blazers are generally worn with short or long pants. Occasionally blazers are worn with kilts, but it is not very common. One school in the 1980s had boys wear their kilt with striking red blazers instead of tweed jackets. More commonly Scottish boys wear their kilts with tweed jackets (figure 1). Most schools allow the boys to select the tweed of their choice. One outfitter in Edinburgh carries a variety of stock Harris tweeds, including Oatmeal Marl, Blue Marl, Oatmeal Herring Bone, Green Herring Bone, and Brown Herring Bone. The bluish and brown-green colors appear the most popular. The jackets are always single breasted and are cut a little shorter than a normal sports jacket. They come with shoulder epaulettes.


Tweed mterial is durable and rough. In a society that is constantly creating new, often synthetic fibers, traditional wool tweed continues to be a fashion mainstay. Tweed is known and respected world wide. A tweed garment seems to last forever and tweed lovers maintain that tweed actually looks better as it grows older--hatdly what one can say about modern polyester fabrics. There is an old Galeic blessing sung with the giving of a new tweed garment: "Mayest thou enjoy it, Mayest thou wear it, Mayest thou finish it, Until thou find it, In shreds, In rags, In tatters!" [Harris, p. 66.]


There are many different types of tweeds which are traditionally named after the place where they were profuced. The best known are Donegal, Harris, Saxony, Welsh, West of England, and Yorkshire tweeds. There are alsotweeds made in other countries. We notice Canadian clothing catalogs that mention Halifax and Canadian tweeds. Perhaps the best known tweed is Harris tweed. Harris tweed is of course tweed produced in Heberdies. The number of weavers has declined in recentbyears. Almost all are now located on Harris or Lewis. In fact to strengthen the nearlyb century old Harris Tweed trademark, the Bitish Parliament in 1993 passed the Harris Tweed Act which defined Harris tweed as tweed cloth made with traditional methods by islanders of the Outer Heberdies in their homes and with virgin wool. While the wool can be from mainland Scotland and after 1996 from other countries, it has to be spun and dyed on the islands of the Outer Heberdies. Harris tweed is thus the only widely worn fabric in the world that is still produced by traditional methods. There is even a Harris Tweed Authority to protect the trade name and to promote the fabric. Many of the other tweeds are largely indidtinguishable from each other. The wool fibers in most tweeds are combed in paralell and twisted in the same direction to give a smooth surface. The wool fiber for Harris tweed in contrast are and twisted at random giving an especially rough surface, even for a tweed. The use of differnt colored wools and the number of strands involved in weaving can create garments with up to 40 different colors. [Harris, p. 68.]

The Hebrides

Harris is one of the islnds of the Outer Hebrides in the far west of Scotland--the last land fall in the Atlantic until the coast of North America. Harris is close to Lewis and the two are so close that they are sometimes called Long Island. Harris and Lewis along with Barra, Benbecula, North and South Uist, and several smaller islands are also called the Western Isles. The Heberdies are interestingly geologically, the islands are among the oldest surfaces in the world, worn down by the erosion of the Atlantic Ocean and scourded by Ice Age glaciers. The Precambrian rocks of the Heberdies existed well before either the Rockies or Alps were formed. The Islands have been inhabited since the Bronze Age and the most impressive evudence is the Callanish megaliths on Lewis erected about 1800 BC. The Picts were replaced by the Gaels. The Vikings arrived in the 9th century AD. Norwegian King Magnus II Barefoot claimed the islands in 1098 as part of an arrangement with King Edgar of Scotland. The islanders finally overthrew the Norse and in 1266 Scotland obtained title to the islands under the terms of the Treaty of Perth. Isolation left the islanders for the most part out of the warfare between Scotland and England. Following the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culoden in 1746 was a disaster for the Scottish Highlanders. The clearances proceeded in full force. Crofters were driven from their homes and sheep ranching intensified. Highland culture including the kilt and the Gaelic language was supressed. This process reached the Hebrides by the 19th century. Many Harris crofters were forced to emmigrate, many to Nova Scotia. Others left for Australia. The population was further reduced in the 1840s by the same Potato Famine that devestated Ireland. The islands are today sparsely populated with about 25 people per square mile. The popultion has recovred to 1750 levels. Gaelic is now taught in school. The islands hace a prmitive beauty. They are rugged, covered with Ice Age boulders, and exposed to the full force of the Atlantic gales in the winter. Some have extensive peat bogs--in some cases 5 meters deep. There are few trees. The peat was once used to build houses and is still used for fuel. The islands physical isolation separates them from modern life in many ways.


Hebrides weavers once used wool from Cheviot and Scottish Blackface sheep that were common on the Hebrides. Modern Harris tweed is now made only from Cheviot sheep and other "soft" wools imported until 1996 only from mainland Scotland. Today the more course wool from the Scottish Blackface sheep is exported, primarily used to make carpets.


The most popular pattern is probably herringbone. Tweeds however come in a range of patterns including: check, diamond, glen, herringbone, houndstooth, windowpane, and several others.

Traditional Craft

There are still craftsmen using their Hattersley domestic loom. One weaver reports producing about 5 yards per hour. These tweeds are still made on traditional looms with treadle shafts, bearings and pickling rods. The warp beam feeds the wool into the loom length wise through bobbing heddles. Then a lever is used to strike a wooden shuttle ino the space between warp strands introducing a the weft or crosswise strands. Most Scottish weavers have learned their trade from their fathers. Often they began at a young age with simple tasks such as filling bobins at age 8. The weavers work in association with mills which furnish the wool yarn and then buy and finish the woven fabric. [Harris, pp. 65-67.]

Economic and Cultural Importance

Tweed fabric in the era before modern economies and currency were a critical element in the economy of the Hebrides and other areas. Weavers might pay their rents to the lsnd lords in fabric. Tweed also entered Gaelic folklore. Weavers would put two crossed colored threads on their bales of fabric to ward off the farries. Tweed making, preparing and softening the freshly woven twead, was an important social institution like quilt making. This would be done while sing traditionsl Gaelic songs. [Haris, p. 69.]

Colors and Dyes

Weavers used to prepare their own dyes from native plants and lichen. Tradition dyes included: green (heather or stinging needle), orange (ragweed), purple (elderberries), red (lichen or roots such as lady's bedstraw), yellow (bracken root or cow pasley), and a varity of other colors from plants used by the ancient Celts. One particular favorite was winter hether (crotal lichen). The plants would be boiled in large pots to produce the dyes. Today chemical dyes are used which avoid the laborious work of gathering the plants (some of which are now scarce) and preparing the dyes. [Harris, p. 69.] The modern chemical dyes come in more colors and are brighter as well as do not run like the traditional dyes. Some weavers, however, preper to use the traditional dyes and experiment with new ones of their own conoction.


BBC. "Tweed in Harris".

Harris, Joseph. "Timeless Tweed," Smithsonian, September 1998, pp. 64-72.


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Created: June 28, 2003
Last updated: 5:31 AM 8/28/2004