Sturdy and Staid? Estate Tweeds Get Loud

09_02_CuratedTweed_01
Huntsman has revived classic tweeds in an array of bright, bold colors and patterns. Huntsman

"With what a glory comes and goes the year!" wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the opening lines of his poem "Autumn." It is a theme that obviously resonated with the poet; the colors excited him, and the word picture he painted is seductive: "There is a beautiful spirit breathing now/Its mellow richness on the clustered trees,/And, from a beaker full of richest dyes,/Pouring new glory on the autumn woods,/And dipping in warm light the pillared clouds. "

However, as a chronic heliophile, I am afraid that I cannot get quite as excited about the end of summer as the author of "The Song of Hiawatha." The season that for Keats was "close bosom-friend of the maturing sun" is in my eyes more of a viper in the bosom; the sinister, ominous overture for shorter, darker, colder, wetter days. It is a melancholic time of year; the only reason the leaves are turning such pretty colors is because the chlorophyll is leaving them as a prelude to their withering death.

Were it not for the comforting presence of tweed, I would probably have taken up hibernation. Tweed, proper tweed, is all the things I am not: strong, pretty much impervious to the worst of weather, perfectly at home on a bleak, wind-ravaged moor, crawling through heather and scree while stalking one of the magnificent stags the English painter Edwin Henry Landseer was so fond of painting.

It is to Landseer and his literary equivalent, Walter Scott, that the sort of tweed I like owes its existence. Led by such avid readers of the Scott oeuvre as Queen Victoria, it became the fashion for the British elite to purchase land and houses (preferably castles) in Scotland. As the 19th century progressed, this territorial patchwork and social network of grand sporting estates took on some of the attributes of the Scottish clan system. The clans were eroded first by the failed Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and then, and more devastatingly, by the Clearances, that troublesome moment in history when landowners, keen to graze profitable Cheviot sheep, turned the tenant population off the land. The most famous thing about the clans had been the tartan, such a potent symbol that for a while its wearing was outlawed by the 1746 Act of Prohibition. Estate tweeds assumed something of a similar role as signifiers of region, as landowners clad themselves and their estate workers in distinctive tweeds, often based on the colors of the land.

Like good wine, the most characterful tweeds have a goût du terroir, and the power to transport the thoughts and emotions of more romantically inclined wearers to the dramatic landscapes of Scotland. Balmoral's estate tweed, one of the first, recalls the granite of nearby Aberdeen, while the famous Lovat mixture is a mélange of the colors of the trees, sand, heather, bracken and bluebells along the Loch Morar shore.

Weavers and estate owners went to great lengths to get the colors and patterns just so. My favorite tweed-creation story is recounted in Scottish Estate Tweeds (a book first published in 1995, and a sort of Scottish sartorial Almanach de Gotha or Burke's Peerage ). It tells how the owner of the Strathconon estate in Ross-shire had eight variations of a tweed woven, after which the "stalkers were sent up the hill with sample lengths" while he "sat on the front porch of the lodge with his glass to see which tweed was the most invisible" and would therefore offer better camouflage while shooting or stalking.

The book is among my top choices for late-summer reading, in preparation for the onset of autumn, and in its pages it is possible to see an increasing boldness in the designs. Those first-generation estate tweeds tend to present a solid color at a distance, which only upon closer inspection reveals itself to be composed of yarns of subtly different hues. By a century later, the designs are noticeably bolder. One favorite of mine is an elaborate check embracing various shades of green, violet, yellow and beige in a pattern so detailed that the repeat is 6 inches. Queen Victoria's great-grandson did much to popularize such bold checks, and by the 1960s and 1970s, large checks and vigorous color schemes were de rigueur.

At this time, the Savile Row tailor Huntsman started developing its signature tweeds, some of the most audacious ever woven in Scottish mills. Until the mid-1960s, Huntsman tweeds had shown restraint, but around 1964, stripes, checks and invigorating color schemes began to appear. By the 1970s, the tweed book is ablaze with rust, green, yellow, tangerine, cherry, slate, white, blue and so on, woven into huge checks.

In the late 20th century, the age of power suits and city stripes, these fabrics fell from fashion. But in recent years Huntsman has revived some of these classics and taken to having archive-inspired patterns woven in the same colors—albeit in weights more suited to wearing in these days of central heating. Meanwhile, around the corner from Savile Row, on Sackville Street, Dashing Tweeds is bringing bright, bold patterns to a new generation.

I have to say that estate tweeds brighten the dark days of autumn and winter, and have proved popular with, among others, American clients. If Longfellow were writing today, I am sure that their colors would move him to verse.