Last year when the United Kingdom's trade minister announced a crusade to promote Harris Tweed as the "sustainable fabric to the world" the thrust was that the handwoven wool is renewable, eco-friendly and maintains a cottage industry in Scotland's Outer Hebrides where it is exclusively woven by crofters in their homes. For the end consumers tweed is a fabric that sustains in a few more ways: its durability ensures years of use and its enduring style keeps it relevant despite ever-shifting fashions.
Tweed began life as a workingman's cloth. Suddenly in love with all things Scottish, British toffs of the 19th
century embraced it for field sports from hunting to golf. What was country wear for the Downton Abbey set morphed into a uniform for college professors in jackets with elbow patches. Soon it became casual urban clothing. Lighter, finer tweeds were developed and now a suit is perfectly acceptable office wear. Part of tweed's charm is that it dresses up and down to the occasion. A three-piece suit can be worn together or separated, with jacket, trousers or vest fitting in with another ensemble. Resisting water, cold and wear, the fabric is suitable as active outerwear from autumn through winter.
The legend goes that the name derives from a misspelling of tweel, for twill, (and not from the Tweed River valley, which is also a producer). Parsing tweed can be a bit confusing as it is described in many ways. Essentially it means unfinished fabric, usually woven in a twill (diagonal) pattern and having speckled coloration. Harris Tweed refers to fabric made to the standards of that authority (including provenance, handweaving and, originally, local wools and dyes). Tweeds can also be designated by the sheep providing the wool: e.g., the coarse yarn of Cheviot sheep and the finer, but shaggy, Shetland breed. The name may also refer to country of origin. The Irish Donegal tweed includes slubs of contrasting color. Soft merino wool is a hallmark of Saxony tweed. Such patterns as herringbone and houndstooth are well-known enough that the terms are used to indicate the fabric. On top of that there are clan and estate tweeds, which are patterns specific to an extended family or a manor house.
Your job, however, is simple: pick out the tweed jacket (or suit, trousers, vest, tie or even newsboy or Rex Harrison hat) you like by color, feel or pattern. And when your jacket's elbows inevitably wear out, sew on patches.