Remaking Tweed for the Modern Era

I recently made a cameo appearance in a three-part BBC documentary about tweed; I was wheeled in to give a bit of historical context and to enthuse on the subject. The documentary dealt specifically with Harris tweed, a unique hirsute cloth made in Scotland's Outer Hebrides Islands. Its pretext was the changes being wrought in what is, quite literally, a cottage industry, with individual weavers working in their homes or garden sheds to make a cloth that is then returned to the mill, where it is finished and shipped all over the world. Its character owes much to an image thick with peat smoke and Gaelic, gently tinted by a thousand hues of lichen dye.

But even the most ardent tweed enthusiasts, among whom I count myself, will admit the industry has been declining since a peak of production in the late 1960s of about 7 million yards per year. It was with a view toward reviving the industry that a couple of years ago a Yorkshire textiles magnate called Brian Haggas bought the largest mill and set out to relaunch Harris tweed by making thousands of tweed jackets in a palette of colors drastically reduced from about 8,000 to four.

It was a controversial move and the BBC documentarian Ian Denyer joined the story just as Haggas, saddled with thousands of unsold tweed jackets, had to take drastic action. "I arrived at a point where Haggas had told the weavers that he was halting production until he had sold some of his jackets," says Denyer.

But it was not all bad news; Haggas's plans gave an unexpected fillip to the business of two other mills, in Shawbost and Carloway, which stepped in to fill the color vacuum. In making the film, Denyer, a tweedophile himself, was struck by the genuine worldwide enthusiasm for the fabric, and it would appear that viewers were moved, too. Since then, Haggas has sold some of his jackets and been inspired to make a fifth model, aimed at a younger customer, which even goes so far as to feature a traditional polychromatic check.

Denyer thought his series was affectionate, so he was surprised at complaints from some who felt that it portrayed the island and its cloth in an overly folkloric way, viewing Harris tweed as an almost ethnographical curiosity. But it is the ethno-specific character of Harris tweed that might well ensure its survival. With its strong innate regionality, unique manufacturing process, and romantic locus, tweed plays into the modern appetite for products that have an authentic character rather than a manufactured brand identity. A low-carbon manufacturing process—the looms used by the weavers are foot-powered—only adds to the appeal.

Like many things that have become ineffably British, tweed was largely a 19th-century invention. After the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the wearing of tartan was banned; but the later influx of affluent Victorian landowners lured north of the border by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the joys of field sports popularized the district checks and estate tweeds that identified those who lived and worked on their acres. Hard-wearing, breathable, and executed in shades matching the landscape, tweed was the cloth from which the sportswear of the British Empire was cut.

Of course, times have changed and the heavy tweeds of Victorian days are not suited to the modern world of climate-controlled homes and offices. However, it is the emotional attachment to tweed and the idealized Britain it represents that accounts for a good chunk of its renewed popularity. According to Peter Smith of the Savile Row tailor Huntsman, demand for the cloth is more brisk than at any time since he joined the firm in the early 1990s.

Huntsman has a unique reputation when it comes to tweeds. Its signature big bold checks reached their apotheosis in the late 1960s, and this year it has chosen to reissue a tweed that the house first sold in 1969: a natural tan with huge windowpane checks in black, sky, and royal blue. The only difference between this tweed and its 40-year-old ancestor is the weight; whereas the original would have been a 21- or 22-ounce tweed, this is a 14-ounce.

It is ironic that one of the most sepulchral of Savile Row tailors should offer such an eye-popping tweed, but then that is one of the charms of the fabric: you can get away with patterns that would not be tolerated otherwise. Says Smith, "A number of younger gentlemen have been coming in and ordering it."

And tweed is indeed appearing in some unexpected places. Photographer Guy Hills, the flamboyant founder of Dashing Tweeds, teamed up with weaver Kirsty McDougall to create such sartorial neologisms as a bicycling tweed with reflective stripes woven into it. Unafraid to tackle new markets, Hills is gratified that his fabrics have come to the attention of a particularly influential source: music producer Pharrell Williams's label, the Billionaire Boys Club. "Those rappers spend a lot of money on their clothes, even if they don't always look as though they do," says Hills. Given rap music's long-term infatuation with sportswear, there is something rather fitting in its flirtation with sporting apparel made from what might, with some justification, be called one of the earliest of technical fabrics.