Fashion can be many things to many people. Early humans simply required covering, shelter and security from all that was challenging in caveman times: the elements, enemies, predators. Over time functional covering became fashion—which these days sometimes skips functionality altogether in the name of style. Fashion is a deeply personal expression and celebration of the designs and designers who make it possible for you to feel and look your best every day.
Most modern fashions and fabrics have functional roots. Hundreds of years ago in Scotland, you would have seen a very stiff, hardy, woolen cloth that was made from local resources to protect Scots from the cold and the elements. In time, the earliest incarnations of Scottish tartans grew from this: a hardy, plaid-patterned woolen fabric produced in lengths of several yards that would be wrapped around the waist and over the shoulder. As textiles evolved further with the Industrial Revolution, a new version of stiff, woolen cloth grew in Scotland: tweed.
J&L’s passion is tweed! It can be durable, elegant, and sturdy. It can indicate class, academic standing, or ties to Scottish estates, but is distinct from tartans and their clan and family affiliations. Tweed carries with it a truly romantic history that we hope you find as enchanting as we do.
We have the joy of continuing the legacy of this classic textile by producing high quality, durable, heavy and lightweight tweeds with a twist, designed for travelers with taste who want to bring Scottish heritage into their everyday lives.
Each J&L Tweed lifestyle accessory and wearable is designed and handcrafted with the timeless quality, extraordinary beauty, and unique sensibility of the Scottish Highlands.
We’re unlike any other tweed on the market, and incorporate joy and deep storytelling into each step in our process, from design to production to sale. Our customers know they’re choosing a piece of history with products that are fresh, interesting and anything but stuffy.
We owe a lot of our joy to tweed, and so we thought it fitting to pay respect to its legacy with this history of tweed.
History: How did Tweed Make its Fashion Debut?
Today we know tweed as a mainstay in traditional Western tailoring, as the telltale wardrobe for professors and academics, fisherpeople, hunters, detectives, politicians, and the fashion forward. Through its textile history, tweed has been functional, a celebrity fashion fad, and a staple of landowners and the aristocracy.
The complex history of tweed tells a story that is just like its special patterns; it is a tapestry of not only the evolution of fashion but of class and gender, too. The birth of tweed is tied to the overall growth of textile production at the heart of the Industrial Revolution into the 1830s, but the cloth tweed grew out of had been in use much longer.
Tweed, what’s in a name?
For tweed, everything is in the name. Until the name was popularized, Scots would have just called it what it was: a wool cloth.
You may never have heard of fabric by the name of tweel (Scottish version of twill), unless you are a fashion history buff. This material, woven in a twilled pattern where you can see the diagonal lines in the cloth, is actually one and the same as our beloved tweed! The story goes that tweed received its name when a London merchant misread the handwriting on a vendor letter regarding the sale of “tweels.”
The merchant assumed the scribbles he’d received were a reference to the River Tweed, which flows through Scotland's famous textile area, the Scottish Borders. He had misinterpreted the term as a trade-name indicative of its manufacturing and city of origin and advertised the items as Tweed.
The Industrial Revolution coincided with the growth of newspapers and reading across the world, helping the name tweed to spread. The growth of newspapers also meant the start of celebrity news, and celebrity Scotsman Sir Walter Scott popularized many “Scottish” trends, including tweed suiting.
From this point forward, the gorgeous, woven textiles known as “tweed” developed an even more rich history of use and popularity.
But Really, What IS Tweed?
When it was first produced, tweed fell much closer to the utility end of the fashion spectrum. It was made of tightly woven sheep's wool that fortified the weave against rain and forest dew.
Its durability, warmth, and water-proof qualities made the fabric popular with Scottish farmers. The fabric allowed them to weather the very cold, blustery, and rainy seasons of the Scottish Highlands more safely and efficiently.
While many tweed-style cloths share the look of tweed, a traditionalist would define tweed based on its durability and its production, as well as its look.
Durability - Tweed is always slightly coarser wool that is all about longevity for hard use. The term “thornproof” is often applied to tweeds. Early tweed clothing was made as “working tweeds” used by farmers and those who managed Scottish estates, so had to withstand the weather and walking the width and breadth of the wildest parts of the Scottish Highlands.
Production - To get this durability, tweed is made from woolen spun yarn, which is more coarse and durable than other yarns. Two strands are twisted together to increase durability. Durability is increased further when the cloth is made and the yarn is set densely in the heavy-weight cloth. With this tight, coarse weave in place, a well-made tweed jacket should wick away the moisture when you’re walking through a misty Scottish morning.
The Look - Because they were made for function, the earliest tweeds served as camouflage and would have been dyed to match the surrounding area. This meant a lot of brown and green tones, complemented with specific tones to match the area. Dyes could even be made with local flora, down to a specific flower found on an estate, to ensure the fabric naturally matched the surroundings it would be used in.
To get the variation and depth of color that is tweed’s hallmark, fibers are dyed before they are spun into yarn. This ensures that the yarn itself has a mixture of colors that are then combined into a tight, dense pattern of repeating checks. Thus the patterns in traditional tweed are often finer and more subtle in color than a lot of the modern tweed-style cloth used by major fashion houses.
As the news of the fabric’s usefulness spread, tweed grew in popularity with hunters and fishermen. In its earliest days, tweed fabric would have been made mostly into a medium-weight jacket or possibly a coat. Tweed became the hunter’s statement fabric of the 1820s and ’30s, thanks to celebrity Scotsmen like Sir Walter Scott, who favored the fabric for bold trousers — arguably the first use of tweed as fashion accessory versus utilitarian necessity.
Although tweed was originally considered a very masculine fabric because of its use among estate workers and because it wasn’t soft to the touch, as the 19th century went on women’s tweeds developed. Today tweeds can be found in suits for men and women, skirts, accessories, interiors - even in weatherproof wear for the stylish pet!
There is My Tweed and Your Tweed…
First from use on estates and later as the wearing of tweed spread beyond estate workers to estate owners, the unique tweed patterns became associated with the families of each area who would don them. The pride of production meant that hunters from each family, wearing their pattern of tweed, would be recognizable to other hunters and area townspeople.
Tweed patterns over time came to identify the wearers as of a certain class. In the same way that Princess Kate can make a fashion house today when she chooses a dress, royal trend-setting had a hand in making tweed’s name.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, purchased the Balmoral Estate in Scotland, which is still used by the royal family today. The royal pair took a liking to tweed, and Prince Albert had “Balmoral Tweed” designed specifically for his castle even before it was built. You can see the evidence of tweed’s use as camouflage in Balmoral Tweed, as the grey tones throughout reflect the granite of the surrounding area.
Elite families followed the lead of the royals and began to make tweeds specific to their estates, differentiating themselves during leisure activities that were emerging in popularity with the upper class, such as fishing, golf and sport hunting.
How Tweed is Made: It’s all in the Process
Each step of tweed production is imbued with pride and history. These days the wool that becomes tweed comes from all over the world, but the heart of the fabric is in how it is made.
Here are the basic steps (just in case you want to make your own) :
- Dye and dry the wool fiber
- Blend and card the wool
- Spin the wool into yarn
- Warp the threads together
- Weave the threads into a pattern
- Finish the tweed from its “greasy state”
- Inspect final product for sale
Dyed to Perfection
Based on the end design, the raw, washed wool is dyed to match and processed in batches to ensure the quality and consistency of the dye. The handlers are careful to ensure that only the exact right quantity of wool is dyed in each color so that the weave outcome will match the design, and in many cases, to match the desired tweed that has already been produced.
Today, the vegetation historically used to make the dyes is protected in Scotland, so artisans work hard to replicate as natural a process as possible to create vibrant dyes.
Before moving on to the next process, dyed wool must be air dried to protect the nature of the fiber.
Carding (*Hint… Has Nothing to do With Drinking Age)
In the list above, you read “blend and card the wool,” and unless you’re a fashion student or shepherd, you’d have no reason to recognize this very special part of the process. This is when batches of dried wool, measured to create a color hue specific to the tweed’s design, are carded.
Carding is the process of separating individual fibers to remove imperfections and smooth fibers. Using paddles with stiff bristles, in a series of separating and dividing steps, the fibers fall in line with one another, in one uniform direction.
This process also has the benefit of removing any remaining impurities leftover from washing and dying. Historically, individual paddles were used by hand, but the process has been a bit modernized today by using pinned rollers in a mill.
And now we’re ready to make yarn! The carded fibers are spun into soft, twisted yarn for maximum strength. This step in the process is essential for tweed and creates its famous texture and durability.
This part always makes us think of Cinderella's yarn spindle. We can just imagine diligent makers across the ages, sitting at this wooden device, carefully creating gorgeous yarns in stunning colors.
Now, the tweed yarn must be prepared for the loom and warped together. Dyed yarn in each carefully curated color is matched and gathered by hand in specific orders and wound onto large beams by order: weft beams are the left to right threads and warp beams are the vertical threads.
Woven with Love
Stick with us, we’re almost there. We’re finally weaving!
The weaver is set to work, hand tying yarns to the tail end of the previous weave. The loom tightly binds the wool yarn to the textile, requiring the scrupulous observation of highly skilled weavers. Imperfections and variances are natural, but our weavers believe in producing the highest of quality tweeds with minimal upsets to the design.
Inspected and Perfected, Again!
From here it’s all downhill. The woven tweed fabrics are ready for their final processing, perfecting them from their “greasy state” by diligent darners, removing the smallest of flaws. The tweed is then washed and beaten in soda and soapy water to remove dirt, excess oil, and other impurities. As a finishing touch, the tweed is then dried, steamed, pressed, and cropped to perfection.
And voila! You’ve got tweed fabric that can be used … however you like!
Uses, Types and Tartans: What Do You Do with Tweed
Tweed has been commonly used in men’s suits and outerwear thanks to its utility and weatherproof properties. Early tweeds were rather rough and highly durable, but scratchy to the touch. This made them ideal for outerwear.
Tweed jackets, used as sports coats for hunting and outdoor leisure activities, set the tradition of tweed usage, which we can see continued today. Tweed patterns are popular on blazers and coats for practicality and as fashion statements. These coats are known to be extremely warm and long-lasting.
Tweed suits, with pants and jackets and sometimes a waistcoat, are still popular and present an extremely distinctive look when accessorized tastefully. They can be classic for travel and presentable for everyday wear and high society events alike, offering both warmth and great vintage appeal.
Tweed hats and bags are also very classic and a common use of the fabric. The caps are a telltale characteristic of the Scottish Highland farmers and weavers, but have been picked up as fashion trends by many different communities since their origin.
Popular Types of Tweed
If you’re a fan of tweed, then you’ve likely heard of the Harris and Donegal tweeds. These historic tweeds, one from Scotland and the other from Ireland, are characterized by very specific origin stories and design patterns. Harris Tweed is such a large part of Scottish identity that it’s even protected by a government act.
The Harris Tweed Act of 1993 defines the tweed as handwoven and finished by islanders at their homes in the Outer Hebrides, and it must be made from pure virgin wool dyed and spun in — you guessed it — the Outer Hebrides.
A few other tweeds that are considered “easy to identify” are:
- Saxony tweed - from merino sheep and made in Saxony, Germany. It’s soft and smooth thanks to the fine merino wool.
- Herringbone tweed - a broken twill weave producing patterns of V’s on the fabric’s surface. It got its name from the fishbone look of the pattern.
- Shetland tweed - named for the sheep of the Shetland Islands, off the northeastern coast of Scotland. A lighter weight, casual tweed, thanks to the delicate wool used.
- Barleycorn tweed - a pattern that looks like the kernels of the barleycorn. A dynamic pattern that’s slightly bumpy to the touch.
- Cheviot tweed - named for the origin sheep from the Cheviot Hills of the Scottish borders region. Generally heavier and rougher.
- Overcheck twill - this is plain twill fabric with large checks in contrasting colors to complete the wool patterns.
How do J&L Tweed’s modern tweeds compare? Fashionably, of course! Thanks to our luxurious wool and our exclusive tweed production processes, tweeds produced by J&L are slightly lighter weight and very soft to the touch, without losing any durability. We believe they’re the best of all worlds; fashionable, fresh, feel great on your skin and tough as the ages.
Wait, if That’s Tweed, What’s a Tartan?
If you’ve seen the movie “Braveheart” about the medieval Scottish patriot, William Wallace’s revolt against the English, then you’ve seen tartans in action!
Tartans are defined as woollen cloth woven in one of several patterns of plaid, especially those designs associated with a particular Scottish clan. The major difference between tartans and tweeds is the weave.
While tweeds are made with wool, modern tartans can be made with any material, from cotton to wool to synthetic materials.
Plaid tartans are typically used for kilts, shoulder wraps or any other large textile use like blankets and throws. They’re not known for the same fashion versatility as tweed. But they are deeply important to Scottish cultural history as they are highly associated with a free and independent Scotland and proudly worn by Scottish clans to this day.
J&L Tweeds… With a Twist!
Across the centuries, humans have always had rich storytelling practices, through song, writing, art, and fashion. This is one of the things we love most about tweed and specifically why we founded J&L Tweed — the stories.
We recognize that there are many amazing tweed and fashion options in the world today. J&L Tweed is special as it helps to keep the story and lore alive.
We’re working with the same herders, vendors, and mills that have been producing high quality tweeds for decades, if not centuries, across their families.
But we do it with a twist! We know that modern times call for the evolution of this incredible fashion foundation. That’s why our tweed products are uniquely designed with vibrant tweed patterns and soft to the touch.
We take great pride in our efforts to bring tweed to the forefront of today’s fashion.
Providing you with bright and lively accessories in over 20 different J&L patterns that are bold and beautiful. Our modern tweeds are the perfect partner for the on-the-go life our customers live today. We’re unlike any tweed on the market, and best of all, we have a lot of fun doing it!
We invite you to check out our tweed patterns today and let us know what kind of products you’d love to see in these amazing fabrics. We love new ideas!