Why don’t we all wear tweed, asks Leslie Geddes-brown
IF you describe someone as ‘tweedy’, it evokes either a red-faced yokel or a poshvoiced man wearing a flat cap on a grouse moor. Which is grossly unfair on tweed. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but the material is the marvellous invention of the Scots and Irish (I don’t think there’s an English tweed, but correct me if I’m wrong).
I have no fewer than five tweed jackets all of handmade fabric by Ian Sutherland on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. All are Breanish tweed with windowpane check patterns. Blue on blue, blue on white, blue on grey, blue on brown and, for a change, a pure cashmere jacket of green on black.
All were made about 20 years ago by my own dressmaker. All have fancy buttons such as pearl sewn on back-to-front and, for the brown version, a series of flattened silver coins dating from 1704 from the reign of Frederick IIII of Denmark. They were an heirloom and are held on by a sort of safety pin.
I can’t remember if I bought these lengths of cloth directly from Mr Sutherland, but I certainly visited both Harris and Lewis to see tweed being made. It was invariably done in a ramshackle shed, generally without windows, set in the wild landscape of the islands. There would be a gigantic iron loom, probably Victorian and built to last—mr Sutherland was using a 90-year-old Hattersley. The noise was terrific.
I really value my five jackets. As I write, I’m wearing the blue on blue, the style copied from an Indian design with a stand-up collar and an ingenious way with buttonholes that impressed my dressmaker (who isn’t easily impressed). She lined it with ultramarine, rough woven silk bought from a sari shop, as, at that time, we both lived in Halifax, where there were Indian shops aplenty.
She was more used to cutting and fashioning Harris tweed, which she said would only crease if you jumped on it, but that was the heavy version, ideal for farmers and grouse moors. My Breanish is a lightweight tweed with all the same rough characteristics, but almost as soft and giving as a wool cardigan. It’s a delight to wear.
It’s strange that no other European country seems to have come up with such a useful fabric. Of course, you need plenty of sheep —Blackface are good—and therefore moorland, which Harris and the Highlands have in miles. But surely Sweden, Germany and the Baltic states have both the sheep and the climate? Why have they only come up with loden?
Actually, when I think about it, Britain can claim credit for some of the most popular cloths in the world. Think of worsted, especially with a pinstripe. This was normal fare for the vast mills that surrounded us in Halifax, where the looms could weave 54in widths of cloth as against Harris’s 36in. It made tailoring a lot easier and where would bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers be without their superfine pinstripe suits?
Couldn’t they branch out a bit into tweed suits, removing the fieldsports image and replacing it with Tory suavity (no, I can’t see Jeremy Corbyn in a houndstooth)? Photographs of the massed MPS in the Commons would be much more lively with a few colourful checks, herringbones, spotty Donegals and, in the case of SNP members, a full-blown tartan. What is the Sturgeon tartan?
Fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood could have their way and use lightweight tweed and, of course, wildly expensive cashmere for their creations. I know they've thought of it, because, in 1996, Ian Sutherland sued Parcelforce for losing 16m of his best tweed, which was being sent to Miss Westwood.
My Breanish jackets may have little in common with her punk designs, but I do have the kudos of knowing they were made on the same 90-year-old loom in a shed on the Isle of Lewis.
‘She said Harris tweed would only crease if you jumped on it