PICK OF THIS SEASON’S KIT
Where should you begin your quest for the perfect clothing to cocoon you on shoot days? And should you opt for new trends or stick to tradition?
Shooting coats for wet days, essential knitwear, the stoutest of brogues and Neil Cross’s guide to having a shooting suit built
A shooting suit is a one-off creation, more akin to a Morgan than a Ford
Of all the good things still left in this world, the sporting tweed ensemble is perched firmly amongst the top boughs, riding the gales of cheap imitations and nasty, “technical” alternatives like a rook in March. It is absolutely correct that a set of shooting tweeds be “built” rather than made. There is structure and substance here that speaks more of Tudor house-building than tailoring. This is countryside construction at its best and it has endured for centuries for several very good reasons: first off, and most importantly, it works. Proper tweed protects the wearer from the worst a Scottish mountain or Cornish snipe bog can hurl at it, and it does so in style. By “proper” tweed, we are talking about British wool, woven tightly in a style once known as “thornproof”. This needn’t be so heavy that it feels like a suit of armour. I have tweeds by Henry Poole, built some time in the late 1950s, which are supremely weatherproof but surprisingly light in weight. An ideal companion on an early season partridge day, they still hold their own (and keep the weather out) when crawling for a stag in October. That is not to say that a very senior 28oz thornproof has no place on the (reinforced) rail of the sporting wardrobe. My personal battery of tweeds was made for me in this weight by Haggart’s of Aberfeldy when the company ruled the roost with its Highland estate tweeds. Hewn from its signature B101 pattern, it is a true set for all seasons with a belted Norfolk jacket and plus eights, complemented by trousers, waistcoat and hacking coat. It is equally at home slithering down a peat runner, rifle in hand, in Sutherland or worn as a three-piece racing get-up on a chilly day at Cheltenham. I’ve even deployed the plus eights on the Cresta Run and the waistcoat in Africa, where the colours work surprisingly well when the bush is lush.
A shooting suit is a one-off creation, more akin to a Morgan than a Ford. Its foundations are hefted from Cheviot wool, horsehair and canvas and its lining is there to line, not to catch the eye. Brown or green is preferable to scarlet or electric blue here and the lining will have a hard time if the owner is using it properly. The back lining and underarm areas will soon disintegrate if style is chosen over substance. A proper shooting coat might also have voluminous “poacher’s”style pockets stitched into the lining, with buttoned retaining straps as these are invaluable for stowing one’s gloves, map and piece when on the hill or moor. They’ll also stow a few couple of snipe should the need arise. It should also have working lapels, with a throat-lash to button these across the wearer’s neck when the going gets tough and the sleet creeps in. Perhaps the most critical aspect of this garment, however, is its back panels. For a coat to earn its keep and do its job, it must afford perfect mobility. It should enhance the swing of a gun or the mount of a rifle and, for that reason, it must have an “action-back”. That is to say, it ought to comprise twin gussets, cut into the shoulders and running down to the belted or semi-belted lower back. These are not easy to construct properly as they contain a double fold of cloth and must sit flat and create an elegant line when not in action.
However, when the gun comes up, they need to expand effortlessly and prevent the back panels from impeding movement or the cuffs riding up. When the action back is done properly the action man or woman will know it just as they will know when the gun mount fails in the face of indifferent tailoring as the last grouse of the day slips past on the crest of a gale.
The term “breeks” never seems to quite befit the lower half of a set of shooting tweeds. To be effective, I favour the somewhat Edwardian style of plus fours or longer. These behemoths, so beloved of other moths, are cut to sit four inches below the knee over gaiters and allow rainwater to run off and prevent the dreaded gap between stocking and buckle (never, ever Velcro) when crawling or hopping a stile. The back should be high and cut in the “fish-tail” style to sit snugly and well up under the waistcoat. When held in place with braces, this style allows maximum movement without creating a gap or causing the shirt tails to ride up when the action gets hot. I tend to go for the belt-and-braces option as a belt can be a godsend on the hill. As well as holding up overtrousers or carrying a knife, it might also be needed to drag a stag or splint an arm if things don’t go to plan.
Whether one chooses a Norfolk-style coat (which, in my view, is almost unequalled in terms of style and practicality) or another design, it will always be let down by inadequate leg coverage. Some favour long trousers as an alternative to plus fours and the van Cutsem brothers are disciples of this style. It is down to personal choice and full-length trousers can be tucked into socks or boots and do a fine job of avoiding the Watford gap. Of course, on a driven day, boots can be quickly swapped for loafers or brogues when lunch beckons.
start in scotland
So where should one start in the quest for a perfect set of shooting tweeds? Undoubtedly Scotland would be a good stepping-off point as EP Harrison points out in his seminal Scottish Estate Tweeds with the observation that, “the Battle of Culloden Moor on 16 April 1746 was a watershed in Scottish history. After Culloden, Highland society changed due to military defeat, laws and legislation and most of all economic pressure. The origin and story of estate tweeds can be found in those changes and there is a sense in which tweeds can be seen as a strand of Scottish social history”. The land reforms, clearances and mass grazing of sheep instead of the old black cattle caused a boom in wool production and, by 1792, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster had brought the first Cheviot sheep to Sutherland. This was a breed of sheep, “which yielded a third more meat and wool and which showed considerable stamina in the harsh winters of the Highlands”. The crofters were cleared to make way for these sheep and soon a mill to compete with those in the north of England was built in Spinningdale. By the time Prince Albert designed the Balmoral tweed in 1853, a revolution had taken place with wool at its core.
John Sugden of Campbell’s of Beauly has a deep understanding of these matters. “Historically, tweed was the fabric of choice for camouflage on the hills and, therefore,
When the action back is done properly the action man will know it
the shade of the tweed would often use the palette of colours from the hill ground on which it would be worn. Take Balmoral Estate tweed, for example, the grey shade reflecting the granite Beinns of Aberdeenshire and the brighter overcheck colours of yellows and purples, for example, would represent colours from the hill; purple shades representing the heather in bloom, yellows perhaps the bracken in autumn or even the gorse bushes”. Today, his company is thriving in a competitive market where he proudly asserts that, “we cherish our history, heritage and traditions. Our provenance is not contrived and we’re passionate about maintaining the skills in our tailoring workshop above the shop, employing two tailors and six seamstresses.”
Although tastes have changed and the old 26oz to 28oz stalking tweeds have now been largely replaced in favour of lighter weights, with Sugden recommending an 18oz tweed for driven shooting and 24oz for stalking. As he puts it: “These days, some estates prefer a slightly lighter weight, sometimes around 18oz to 20oz, but the majority of estates that Campbell’s work with [more than a hundred] would stick to tradition and use a sturdy 24oz weight, or heavier.”
Another expert in this field is Jeremy Shaw at Carter’s Country Wear in Helmsley, who broadly agrees that tastes have changed in favour of lighter-weight tweeds. He points out that, “I always like to see people for a consultation before we make a suit to discuss what they need the suit for. People who shoot early days tend to need a lighterweight tweed of around 10oz to 12oz. Stalking
has always stayed the same with clients opting for 24oz to 26oz. The main difference these days is the linings. We now offer silk, cotton, Tencel or Gore-tex, which mean you can have a lighter tweed but still be waterproof and windproof.”
This blending of the traditional with the latest performance fabrics keeps the tweed suit relevant in a world that demands style and substance on the peg or hill. Whilst styles may have changed little over the years, Shaw offers some sage advice: “The main thing people should remember is ‘keep it simple’, let the cut of your suit do the talking. Don’t add too many features otherwise it ends up looking silly. The first to wear out will be your plus fours so it’s a good idea to have two pairs or a pair of trousers.” The taste for loud checks and garish colours is probably best left on the covertside, as Sugden explains. “For driven shooting and standing on a peg the world is your oyster in terms of choice, and it is simply down to the individual’s taste and therefore why not have something bright and cheerful? The exception to the rule might be driven grouse shooting where it is encouraged to be relatively disguised in the butt as if the grouse catch sight of you they tend to change course and it makes the shooting even more difficult.”
The working tweed suit is alive and well in this time of manmade fibre and that is largely down to the fact that sporting people tend to enjoy tradition and wish to cocoon themselves in garments that look great and keep out the worst of the British weather. With traditional tailors providing true, bespoke quality and choice, it looks like it’s here to stay. After all, if the Cheviot sheep could thrive in these threads then the modern gun or rifle should take a leaf out of their pattern-book and pull on the wool.
Campbell’s of Beauly, established near Inverness in 1858, today employs two full-time tailors and six seamstresses
Campbell’s of Beauly supplies a good range of caps (costing from £50 plus tweed), as well as deerstalkers, fedoras, baker boy caps and more
Above left: Campbell’s stocks a wide range of tweed and has more than 100 estates on its books Above: the writer’s battery of tweeds, made by Haggart’s of Aberfeldy