Tweed is a soft, unfinished, closely woven, woollen fabric. The manufacture of such fabrics started in the early 1700s as a cottage industry in Scotland, where the cloth produced was known as hodden grey. By 1800 demand had grown and water-powered mills started to appear appear in the towns of Melrose, Jedburgh, Galashiels and Hawick on the River Teviot, a tributary of the the River Tweed. The cloth produced by these mills was originally known as ‘twill’ or ‘tweel’, as it was woven in a twilled (diagonally ridged) rather than plain pattern. But in 1826 a ledger clerk at Watson’s Mill in Hawick, while writing a delivery note for a consignment of tweel to James Locke & Co, London’s leading woollen cloth merchant, accidently allowed a small drop of ink to fall from his pen, turning the word ‘tweel’ into ’tweed’. Believing this to be intentional, James Locke placed his next order for ‘tweed’, upon which William Watson adopted the word to describe his product. Within a few years ‘tweed’ had become synonymous with a high quality cloth -- and part of the English language.
In 1836 the production of tweed in the Western Isles of Scotland was still entirely manual. The wool was washed in soft peat water and coloured with dyes from local plants and lichens, resulting in a cloth with unique feel and look. The story goes that in about 1846 some particularly fine tweed cloth produced in Strond on the Isle of Harris by two sisters, both trained weavers, was shown to Lady Catherine Herbert, Countess of Dunmore. Recognising it’s quality, Lady Catherine commissioned the sisters to produce a Tweed in the Murray family tartan and had the finished fabric made up into tweed jackets for the gamekeepers and ghyllies on the Dunmore Estate.
Lady Catherine was energetic in promoting Harris Tweed as a fashionable cloth for hunting and sporting wear. Seeking to widen its popularity, she organised and paid for the training of Harris weavers in order to improve the quality of the fabric they produced by removing the irregularities caused by hand-dyeing, spinning and weaving, thus bringing Harris Tweed up to the same standard as the machine-made cloth of the time. By late 1840s a thriving London market had been established and when Prince Albert designed a distinctive tweed for the Balmoral Estate that had been acquired by Queen Victoria in 1848, the royal seal of approval led to Harris Tweed becoming the fabric of choice for the aristocracy and landed gentry. Estate tweeds became popular and one of the earliest was based on the now famous Lovat mixture of blues, yellows, browns and whites that reflect the colours of the flowers and bracken found on the hillsides above Loch Morar.
Today, Harris Tweed is distinguished from other tweeds by the fact that by law it can only be described by this name if it has been woven on hand-operated looms in the Outer Hebrides from yarn that has been hand-spun and dyed by local crofters and cottars.
Tweed became popular with the Edwardian middle classes and tweed mills were established in many parts of the UK and Ireland during the early 1900s. After World War II it declined in popularity, but it became fashionable again in the 1960s and is now once again undergoing a revival. With its durability, moisture resistance and almost infinite variety of colours and patterns, it is a sought-after fabric for not only all kinds of outer clothing, including jackets, trousers, waistcoats, skirts and hats, but also curtains, cushions and furniture coverings.