Tweed is a traditional staple of menswear used for outerwear and casual jackets, as well as caps, gloves, liners, and even wool shirts.
It takes its name from the River Tweed, which flows through traditional cloth-producing country in Scotland.
The fabric we call tweed today was originally known in the area as “tweel,” a local spelling of “twill” (the pattern it was commonly woven in), but a London buyer in the 1830s misread an agent's handwriting and assumed the cloth was “tweed,” named after the river.
He began selling it under that name, and the term has stuck ever since.
Tweed is a broad category. A lot of cloths fit into it, some more recognizable than others. A few characteristics define all tweeds:
- Tweed is a woolen fabric. Woolen yarns are made from carded wool, which is thick and full of un-straightened fibers. It is warm and flexible but not as smooth or uniform as worsted yarns, where the wool is combed so that all the fibers lie in one direction.
- Tweed is typically woven in a twill weave. Twill has diagonal ribs crossing the fabric, like the pattern on your blue jeans. While tweed yarns could technically be used in a plain weave (without the diagonal ribs), it is uncommon.
- Many tweed garments have an additional pattern in the weave, either herringbone or houndstooth. These give the characteristically rough look associated with tweed.
- Dyes are traditionally earth-tone and made locally, producing a wide range of color depending on where your tweed is from.
- Specific regions often have their own trademarked tweed, made with local wool and dyed a particular color. Harris Tweed from Scotland and Donegal Tweed from Ireland are probably the most well-known variants.
Uses of Tweed
Tweed Sports Jackets
The most recognizable tweed garment is the classic sport jacket. It became a common leisure garment for the upper and upper-middle class in early 20th century England, and has endured ever since.
A classic tweed jacket is a practical garment: thick wool cut for a softer shape than a suit jacket, with broad flap pockets and often extra details — ticket pockets, leather elbow patches, and so on.
It is more common for tweed jackets to have a working lapel button (and relatively broad lapels, with a fairly narrow opening between them).
This lets the jacket be closed in bad weather, a nod to its sporting and outdoor associations.
Tweed jackets have fallen into different niches throughout modern style: upper-class leisure garments in the 1920s, academic staple throughout the postwar era; hallmark of the mods (particularly in houndstooth) in the 1960s, and so on.
Today a tweed jacket is a classic piece of dress casual wear, suited to days off and particularly to outdoor events more than to work or evening social events.
Tweed's warmth and water resistance make it a popular choice for lightweight overcoats. Sherlock Holmes wears a tweed Inverness cape (a sort of loose, sleeveless topcoat) in a variety of his fictional incarnations.
Without additional treatment tweed is only water-resistant, though it holds up well to light rain or general damp (hence its long-standing popularity in the British Isles). It appears in everything from light, waist-length styles to trenchcoats meant for all-winter wear.
The bright plaid coats that Americans think of as hunting or “lumberjack” clothing are typically made from tweed.
Good tailors and menswear manufacturers will likely have at least a few tweed options in their trouser stock.
These are less common than jackets but equally serviceable — ideal for outdoor use or just for the man who prefers to walk to work, regardless of weather.
Browns and grays are the most common. These are good business-casual trousers, and tend to be more visually interesting than khakis or worsted flannel trousers, as they have a bit more texture and often more variation in the dyes.
Daring dressers may get some mileage out of a tweed vest, either as part of a matched three-piece suit or on its own.
The traditional British country associations will be unmistakable, so be warned — this isn't a flashy new trend to try out at the latest cocktail hot-spot.
But worn with gray trousers or as a counterpart to a matched two-piece suit it adds a very distinguished touch, particularly on an older gentleman.
Tweed caps are as traditional as the jackets themselves. The traditional Irish flat cap is probably the most recognizable style, and has changed very little in the last hundred years or so.
Tweed crops up in even odder places from time to time, including the covers on some vintage guitar amps. Wherever you see it, you know it's a sturdy piece of woolen cloth and a traditional staple of menswear.