How tweed became the fabric of a nation


London Editor

The winds were harsh on the Harris Isles and the shepherds pined for the warmth of a soft embrace or, as substitute, a warm and cosseting cover that would shield and comfort them from the icy glare as they watched their flocks by night. And so some time, many centuries ago a Scottish artisan wove three or more shafts, distributing the weave at the binding points of warp and weft, to form the oblique parallel lines that are the hallmark of tweed. Fast forward to the fall/winter 2013 collections, and everyone from Christian Dior to Versace showcased the textile on their runways.

Tweed is very much imbued in Britain's fashion DNA. The warm and durable textile – with its herringbone, Prince of Wales and houndstooth checks – was soon to transcend the wardrobes of shepherds, spreading to the hunting and banqueting sets. It was renamed from the lilting Scottish twill to the English slur of tweel to tweed, after a merchant in 1830 misread the label of the Hawick clothiers who'd despatched it. Known to be in wide use from the early 1700s, it can today be found featuring prominently among the books of every Savile Row tailor, having been elevated from the countryside to the boardroom and drawing room. It gained a further revival – and check – when the Prince of Wales incorporated it into his vogueish 1920s wear, pairing it against spots and stripes. This season tweed and its prints feature large in the foremost designers' collections in incarnations that surprise, wow and delight.

While tweed can today be found crafted further afield, Scotland remains its heartland, and one destination dominates the luxury market, as it has done for over one hundred years. Harris Tweed, entirely dyed, spun and handwoven on traditional looms from virgin wool on the isles of Harris and Lewis in Scotland's harsh Outer Hebrides, is enjoying a renaissance. Production has doubled over the past five years and output is currently at a 17-year high, thanks in part to this season's sartorial need for tweed. Sourced by everyone from Mulberry to Chanel and Alexander McQueen, it is perhaps the only textile to have its own act of parliament (the famous 'Harris Orb' logo became protected in 1909) and was the namesake of Vivienne Westwood's 1996 homage to British tailoring – 'Harris Tweed.' 

This season's looks – partly due to the current vogue for women's tailoring – reclaim this most traditional of British textiles, giving life to pop, postmodern incarnations too – seen in Dior's ubiquitous houndstooth bodices and Gucci's digitally-printed Prince of Wales Check trouser suits. Versace had designs on edginess, pairing checks with PVC and buckles for her, and distorted prints and Oxford bags for him.

For the gentlemen, Etro work daring psychedelic prints across herringbone weaves, alongside houndstooth shirts and Prince of Wales Check panelled blazers and two-piece suits. Pal Zileri's collection, inspired by 'Easy Virtue' and the 1930s English countryside, features windowpane checks in hopsack structures, while Gucci opted for classic blue Prince of Wales Check suits. 

Opening Men's Fashion Week in London last June, Mayor Boris Johnson posed on Savile Row with male models wearing the looks that a V&A study, commissioned by London Fashion Week, decreed were the ten most influential UK contributions to fashion. One of them was tweed.

If English fashion brands – from Alexander McQueen to Vivienne Westwood – have reclaimed the classic check this season, in Mulberry's collection in homage to the English countryside, the traditional pattern was revisited and reimagined using size and scale to rework classic tweed patterns in multiple fabrics. Bold Prince of Wales checks were worn over trousers and dresses, leather skirts and cigarette pants creating looks that were both preppy and bohemian, structured and relaxed. In fact checks were absolutely everywhere - even on Max, the house dog. 

The winds are brisk on the city's streets, and the style herds long for warm embellishments that will cocoon them in luxury and fend off winter's glare. So it's no surprise that, as you read this, the creed of tweed is still sowing the seeds of fashion's past, present and future.