September 29, 2021
By: Peter Gregory
British tweed … it’s our very own miracle fabric!
Made completely from sheep wool right here on the British Isles, tweed comes in a virtually infinite array of styles, feels and thicknesses. It’s a versatile fabric: tweed can insulate against windy, rainy weather, but it can also be made supple and breathable enough for face masks. It’s flame-resistant and biodegradable, too!
For British clothing startups, tweed is one of the best textile choices you can make. It’s a sustainable, timeless, luxurious raw material that’s in high demand all over the world. In this article, we’ll explain what makes tweed so special, and show you how to start working with this incredible fabric.
The tweed sector employs thousands of crofters, weavers, designers and makers in some of the most remote corners of the British Isles. Tweed making is in the blood: most of our country’s talented artisans learned the skills from their mothers and fathers, who in turn learned from their own parents. Maybe because of how these skills are passed down through the generations, tweed is recognised all over the world as ‘our’ fabric. It’s recognised all over the globe as something that only those of us in the UK and Ireland know how to produce … and there’s a huge international appetite for British tweed products as a result.
The two most well-known tweed brands in the world are Harris Tweed and Donegal Tweed. Both of these labels have a well-earned reputation for exceptional quality, but they’re by no means the only option. There are exceptional fabrics coming out of mills all over the UK and Ireland. You can find authentic, first-class tweed in the Brecon Beacons in Wales, the West Coast of Ireland, Cumbria and Yorkshire: all these places have a strong reputation for producing authentic, first-class tweed. As a rule, if an area is famous for rainy weather, there’s a good chance it’s famous for tweed, too!
Tweed has a tiny carbon footprint, because it doesn’t have to be harvested, synthesised or transported in the same way as other fabrics. For instance, many cotton and polyester fabrics have to travel half-way around the globe on their journey from raw material to finished product. Tweed is different. It can go from the sheep’s back to the shop rack without ever leaving the village.
On the Isle of Harris, for instance, when sheep are shorn, their wool goes through a series of processes (washing, combing, carding, dyeing and spinning), in a series of locally-owned facilities, just a few miles from where those sheep are grazing. That finished wool yarn is then fed into a locally owned tweed loom, where a local Harris Tweed weaver can create around twenty metres of fabric in a single day.
It’s an amazing process — you can learn more about it here:
Tweed is fully biodegradable, too. Finished garments will hold up well to decades of daily wear, but when those garments reach the end of their life, they can often be thrown on a compost pile. 100% wool garments disintegrate without a trace in a few short years.
One of the best things about tweed is how it makes people feel. Even the finest British tweed has a hand-made, honest quality and a rich, comforting texture to it. For many international buyers, the touch of tweed conjures up mental images of heather scrubland, wet afternoons and fresh air. It evokes our unique climate and culture more clearly than any other fabric on earth.
This tactile quality may be why tweed is a big export product for the UK and Ireland. It’s the fabric of choice for countless global fashion designers, furniture makers and tourists … in fact, most of the tweed produced here in the UK is sold to overseas buyers.
Tweed comes in every thickness imaginable. It can be woven smooth or scratchy, with worsted or wool yarn. The wool can be dyed any colour at any stage of the manufacturing process. What’s more, yarns of differing colours can be blended on the loom for a variety of finishes. The weave itself also tells a story: whether you choose to work with a classic check, houndstooth, herringbone, estate or a barleycorn weave, the opportunities to evoke a specific feeling are endless.
Tweed is a little fiddly to work with. It frays if it’s not hemmed properly, and it can change shape as you work with it, which can be a challenge if the weave involves a lot of sharp straight lines. As a natural fabric, it’s also a little pricier per-metre; mistakes on a tweed garment are more expensive than they would be with a cotton or polyester fabric.
There are two vital steps you must take when working with tweed:
Let the shape settle as you work
Tweed changes shape when it goes from rolled to flat, then it changes shape again when it goes from flat to hung. Because of this, it’s important to give tweed a chance to settle at various stages in the garment making process.
When you unroll your tweed fabric for the first time, try to lay it out on a flat surface and leave it to settle for 24 hours or so (at least overnight). If you skip this step, the pieces you cut may change shape and size after you’ve cut them.
After your pieces have been cut out, hang the garment before hemming it. Again, you’re trying to let the material find its natural shape under gravity before you fine-tune sleeves and edges.
Support edges so that they don’t fray
Even the finest tweed will fray at the edges, so you need to make very clean cuts and hem your fabric very carefully. Use the sharpest scissors you’ve got when cutting the fabric. As soon as the fabric is cut, reinforce the fabric with backing material and hemming tape when you stitch the pieces together.
A backing material like interfacing will give your piece structure and stability. You can use bias tape to help bond seams together, too. Just remember that you can’t stitch pieces together directly without some form of structural support. Your threads will fray and all of that handmade texture and quality will start to break up.
I hope this guide has given you a good idea of how tweed works and what makes it special. It’s a beautiful, honest, future-proof material and it’s something that we already export lots of with our heads held high.
When it comes to what you, as the designer can actually do with tweed, the choice is yours. Get yourself a few metres and start playing around with it. Get creative … and remember: when the time comes to order your labels, GB Labels are here for you!
Thanks for reading!