When you hear the word “tweed,” what image comes to mind? Do you think of a college professor wearing a thick jacket, smoking a pipe in a leather armchair? Do you think of the British royal family tramping across the grounds of a country estate after a day of shooting and outdoor sports? Do you think of the cover of the latest fashion magazine? This distinctive fabric isn’t just a textile, it’s a piece of history, and Donegal tweed is a proud piece of Ireland. Here, we’ll discuss this distinctly Irish tradition—what it is, how it’s made, why it’s the epitome of fashion, and where you can get some lovely pieces to add to your own sense of style.
WHAT IS TWEED AND HOW IS IT MADE?
Tweed, in general, is a wool fabric characterized by flecks of thread, rough surface, and is traditionally woven in earth tones and natural colors. Tweed is known for its warmth and durability, and has a reputation for being a practical, hardwearing textile. It was originally a working man’s cloth and was worn by farmers as protection against the cold and the damp. A form of camouflage, the colors used echo the colors of the countryside, and you can find tweeds in a variety of natural colors—browns, pale greens, and the blues and greys of heather.
The history of tweed goes back almost as far the invention of weaving. Originally, tweeds were hand-woven in peoples’ homes. Many families created their tweeds at home, hand-spinning wool from the sheep they raised, and then weaving the spun wool into the cloth. Dyes were made from natural elements, such as moss or lichens. Many families sold their unique family creations at the tweed market for extra money.
The cloth itself is woven on a loom, where horizontal threads (known as the “weft”) are passed through vertical threads (known as the “warp”) using a tool called a shuttle. The weft is eased into place, and line by line, thread by thread, the tweed fabric takes shape. The process takes a great deal of hand-eye coordination in order to coordinate the hand and foot movements to work the loom and shuttle quickly, and can be time-consuming, especially when weaving by hand instead of on a mechanical loom. Generally, a weaver doing the process by hand could produce up to 30 yards of fabric in a day.
Even before the weaver begins weaving the weft through the warp, someone has to set up the vertical threads on the loom to provide the frame to create the cloth. The wool threads are wound on cylinders, and every thread must be wound separately, in sequence. The warper (as the person who sets up the warp is called) is the one who takes the first step in arranging the colors to form the foundation that the weaver uses to create the tweed’s pattern.
While tweed is tweed, there are actually a variety of different tweed fabrics out there. Many tweed varieties are named for the places they are woven, or for the type of sheep the wool comes from. Donegal tweed, from its name, is the most distinctly Irish of the tweed families.
The original Donegal tweed was actually first handwoven by Donegal fishermen and their families around 150 years ago.
The original varieties of Donegal tweed had two distinctive designs. “Salt and pepper” style tweed has flecks of color running throughout the fabric, while “herringbone” tweed has a unique pattern of narrow stripes inspired by fish bones. Both of these traditional patterns of Donegal tweed are still widely available, although there are now a variety of patterns and colors to choose from as well. The term “Donegal tweed” is now used to refer to any cloth created with the flecked pattern of the original Irish tweed cloths.
HARRIS TWEED & OTHER TWEED VARIETIES
Beyond Donegal tweed, the best-known form of the fabric is Harris tweed, Scotland’s counterpart to it’s Irish brethren. Harris tweed is a well-known tweed variety, manufactured in the Scottish highlands with a fiercely protected trademark going back to 1909. The Harris tweed trademark even defines what type of wool can be used to make the cloth, and where it has to be made in order to be considered Harris tweed. Due to these standards, Harris tweed has a level of consistency tin their weaves hat other tweeds may not have. They also have a wide variety of colors woven through them, often up to 12 different shades of colored yarns just to make a simple brown color.
In contrast, Donegal tweed is not as closely guarded a label as Harris tweed. The fabric can have a bit more variation, since the standards are not as rigid as they are with the Harris tweed. Moreover, while Harris tweed can have multiple colored threads running through it, the Donegal tweed is characterized by irregular flecks of color running throughout the pattern.
Saxony tweed is a fine and soft fabric made from merino wool. Occasionally, this tweed uses a mix of woolen and worsted fibers, which makes it nice for suits.
Cheviot tweed is named for the sheep the wool comes from. This tweed is thick, rough, and stiff, and is more densely woven than some other tweeds.
Shetland tweed is softer than some versions, and is a great cloth for jackets. This cloth was originally woven from wool harvested from Scotland’s Shetland islands, although today this exclusivity is not necessarily a requirement.
Thornproof tweed features a higher-twist yarn in order to make the resulting fabric tougher and harder (thus, “thorn-proof”). This tweed is most commonly made in muted green colors rather than browns.
Estate tweed refers to a design, rather than to the cloth’s location or sheep of origin. Usually the patterns are unique to the estates they come from and are worn by the estate staff.
TWEED BECOMES A FASHION TREND
Tweed may have originally been the stuff of farmers’ jackets, but it has become so much more than that. How did tweed go from the farm to the catwalk?
Tweed itself first became popular in the 1830s, when Scottish field sports became fashionable. Tweed, with its tight weave and the natural oils in the wool, was better able to repel water than the alternative brushed wool broadcloths of the day. While many weavers worked their craft in the home, the British government created the Congested District Board (known as the CDB) in the late 1800s in an attempt to alleviate poverty in western Ireland and Scotland. Through the CDB, the tweed industry really started to take off, especially with the introduction of the fly shuttle, which made the weaving process faster and smoother. The advent of modern power looms in the 1960s increased production even more—600 or more yards per day, as opposed to a hand weaver’s 30 daily yards—adding to the growing success of the Irish textile industry.
Tweed also became popular among the middle classes in Victorian England, especially for leisure pursuits and sports. It was worn for almost every conceivable sport—golf, cycling, tennis, mountain climbing, and so forth. Golfers, in particular, showed a great love for tweed up until the 1930s. Even today, tweed is the number one fabric for vintage cyclists.
New generations of designers have incorporated tweed into their creations, from suits to dresses, jackets and trousers. And as tweed gains in popularity, it also gains fresh patterns and colors. Where traditionally you may have been limited to greens and browns, some design houses have created demand for more modern, colorful versions of the traditional cloth—you may be able to find more blues and pinks if you look in the right places. While tweed is an old-style textile, it isn’t going away any time soon. Its durability and versatility apply not just to the physical article, but also to its reputation in textiles and fashion.
If you are ready to take home your very own piece of Irish tradition, we have a few suggestions for you. What are you waiting for? Add one of these pretty yet practical pieces to your everyday life! Whether you’re looking for a tweed cap, vest, or other accessory, we’ve got your go-to selection of Donegal tweed right here.
Donegal Tweed Fisherman Vintage Cap
This traditional flat cap has a slightly different profile than most flat caps, with a snap brim and vintage look that work for nearly everyone. Handmade in Ireland from Donegal tweed, the wool is water-repellent, and the hat itself is lined for comfort. It can be dressed up or down for any occasion, and is always dashing.
Brown Herringbone Donegal Tweed Touring Cap by Boyne Valley Knitwear
If you’re looking for something a little more neutral, the Brown Herringbone Donegal Tweed Touring Cap by Boyne Valley Knitwear is a classic tweed cap that showcases the traditional neutral tones that have distinguished tweed from the very beginning. The cap is characterized by soft shades of brown and blue woven together into the traditional herringbone pattern, and it makes for a stylish accessory for both formal and casual occasions.
Patrick Francis Book of Kells Multi-Tweed Patch Flat Cap
For the truly daring, this patchwork cap is a bona fide swatch palate of all the tweed varieries found in Ireland. From the plain tan and bold red to the herringbone green and brown patterns with windowpane checkers, this hat embodies the best of Irish tweed textiles all in one hat. The Patrick Francis infinity Celtic knot logo is embroidered on the front of the cap, a testament to the history of Irish design and a symbol of the endless possibilities for updating it to modern tastes.
Children’s Vintage Tweed Patch Cap
It’s never too early to start someone on their lifelong style journey. The earth tones on this cap harken back to Ireland’s rugged landscape while the Velcro strap at the back allows for easy adjustability as your child grows.
Bottle Green Guinness Embroidered Tweed Baseball Cap
For a novel use of Donegal tweed in a very contemporary style, look no further than this updated trucker hat from Guinness. With a brown tweed contrast front panel set against an emerald green cotton base, this hat comes alive in Irish tones and textures. To top it off, the Guinness log is embroidered on a black patch sewn to the front of the cap, representing over 250 years of brewing history and heritage.
Mucros Weavers Men’s Full Back Wool Tweed Vest
If caps aren’t your cup of tea, this tweed vest is a sharp, practical piece that adds a level of sophistication to just about every ensemble. The outside of the vest is 100% wool, durable and warm, while the inside lining is 100% viscose, providing a soft and smooth contrast to the hearty tweed. The vest features two classic patterns—herringbone tweed overlaid with plaid—to give a layer of complexity and sophistication that works with both formal and casual settings. Available in a variety of classic earth tones, the vest also features an adjustable back buckle. Five brown football buttons and two front pockets provide easy details that make this the perfect choice for all-day wear, no matter what’s next on your to-do list.
Samuel Lamont Red Tweed Dog Door Stopper
If you’d like your tweed accessories to be a little more unconventional, you can always give this sweet little puppy a home. This door stopper is woven from 100% cotton, so it is not the classic tweed that we have seen—but like traditional tweed, it is durable and easy to care for. Having this cute little friend, with its red tartan pattern, protecting your walls and floors from the daily wear and tear of door use adds a cheerful splash of color to your every day.
Carraig Donn Irish Shoulder Bag
Another option for working a little more tweed into your life is this traditional Irish shoulder bag by Carraig Donn. A gorgeous over the shoulder bag is both elegant and durable, a perfect balance between the leather and tweed elements. Equipped with an adjustable strap, this bag is both stylish and practical. It features plenty of pockets with room to store your treasures as you travel, run errands, or have fun adventures.