Tweed, indeed


Tweed: nasty, rough hairy stuff. Well, that certainly used to be the only correct definition of this fabric, but not any more. Now tweed is as likely to be luxuriously soft and comforting as hard and unyielding, which explains why, after being out of favour for so long, it has found a new popularity. Traditionally, tweed has been a medium-to-heavy weight woven wool with coarse surface texture. Although the cloth was manufactured in the vicinity of Scotland's Tweed river, the name does not derive from this source. Because tweed is usually made by a variation of the basic twill weave, its Scottish pronunciation was "tweel".

Tweed is supposed to have come from a mistake made by a London clerk in the early 19th century; when writing an order, he misspelled tweel, but his version of the word quickly became popular.

Donegal tweed, the type associated with Ireland, is a generic term for a variety of machine-made fabrics which have coloured slubs woven into them.

Tweed has always tended to come in a huge variety of modified twill weaves including herringbone, diamond, chevron and check patterns. Counts of yarns, as well as twist and colour used, varies considerably from one piece of fabric to another. What has been the one consistent characteristic of tweed is a harsh - and hard-wearing - texture.

Richard Llewellyn, writing of tweed in How Green was my Valley says "Good it is, and honest, of the earth and of humankind". That association with the soil has meant tweed until recently was reserved for country life. Wearing this material in an urban setting felt wrong, not least because tweed was intended to keep the wearer warm in a harsh rural environment.

Today, however, tweed's form and appearance have radically altered and so too, therefore, have the opportunities to wear it. While wool is still used, so too are blends such as wool/cotton or wool/silk. Now it is even possible to find stretch tweed thanks to the addition of Lycra to the mix.

In addition, weights have radically altered so that tweed now comes in much lighter styles. As a result, it is possible to wear a tweed suit to work without fear of overheating or looking out of place.

So is tweed set to dominate wardrobes over the next few years? Yes, if fashion designers have a say in the matter. Tweed has turned up in most major collections this season, whether decorated with jet beading courtesy of John Rocha or in a more simple (if more expensive) form from Jil Sander. Because the fabric has lost its heaviness and related coarseness, it can now be worn in cities with comfort.

Irish manufacturers such as Magee and designers including Pat McCarthy and Cuan Hanly have always liked to use tweed. Now they should find the number of consumers willing to follow their example is about to increase. To describe someone as "tweedy" used to imply a degree of conservative crustiness. Now it is set to suggest a modish dress sense.