The Timeless Allure of Tweed

We spoke with style writer Joseph Pastrana about the perpetually popular textile

February 21, 2024 10:08 am
Todd Snyder Harris Tweed Collar Coat; RL67 Checked Wool Tweed Jacket; Drake's Grey Herringbone Harris Tweed Games Blazer
Left to right: Todd Snyder Harris Tweed Collar Coat; RL67 Checked Wool Tweed Jacket; Drake's Grey Herringbone Harris Tweed Games Blazer
Todd Snyder/Ralph Lauren/Drake's

In menswear, historically significant garments and textiles inevitably ebb and flow within the fashion zeitgeist and trend cycle. One notable example is tweed — the iconic, robust, woolen textile known for its soft yet tactile and flexible texture. It is often woven by passing the horizontal thread over the longitudinal thread and then under two or more horizontals to produce a diagonal twill or herringbone pattern. Tweed has been a reliable textile of choice for many menswear aficionados, and almost all of us have owned a tweed garment at one point or another, especially in cooler months. Like anything that stands the test of time, its popularity among the masses may fluctuate to some extent at different points; however, judging by numerous trend forecasts, tweed is poised for a resurgence.

Originating in Europe, particularly Scotland and Ireland, tweed has a rich and storied history. Initially worn by farmers, it gained popularity among the upper classes in the British Isles after 1848, following Prince Albert’s introduction of Balmoral tweed at his Scottish estate. The fabric’s robust and versatile nature led to its adoption by the middle class for everyday activities. Diverse patterns, including houndstooth, windowpane, gamekeeper’s tweed, Glen plaid check, and herringbone, showcase the fabric’s adaptability and enduring appeal.

In the United States, tweed is often associated with collegiate professors and embraced by enthusiasts of “trad” style. For iconic brands like Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers, tweed has become synonymous with their identity, symbolizing the embodiment of classic Americana and high fashion. Hip trad labels such as Drake’s or Rowing Blazers show tweed’s enduring charm in its ability to blend the timeless with the universally cool, further proving its journey from humble beginnings to classic prep style. But it does not merely stop at storied brands.  A glimpse at the runways and trade shows of the past season, with fashion powerhouses like Dior and Fendi showcasing tweed, solidifies its status as a fabric on the brink of a revival.

To me, tweed is a textile that exudes a palpable sense of history. Although a particular garment might be new, its tweed composition imparts a feeling as if it already carries a rich history within it. It is durable, weather-resistant, highly wearable, and possesses a unique texture that is rough yet soft to the touch – unlike any other fabric. Tweed is where form meets function, and style meets storied heritage.

We spoke with Joseph Pastrana, menswear authority, industry veteran, and author of Homespun: True Tales of Tweed, to understand more about the enduring appeal of tweed.

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Can you describe what tweed means to you in a few sentences?

For myself, as well as for many menswear connoisseurs, tweed signifies a distinct kind of integrity that you just don’t get from any other material. Wearing something made of tweed imbues you with substance, not only from its profound legacy but also from the meticulous craftsmanship involved in its creation. On a practical level, it defies becoming outdated. And, of course, depending on how it is cut, it can be as formal or informal as you please.

What is it about this textile that compelled you to write a (very amazing) book on Tweed?

My interest was in exploring how tweed continues to transcend centuries of history and applications. The deeper I delved into the subject matter, the more apparent it became how well tweed has adapted to changing tastes – not just in menswear but also in interiors, costume design, accessories, and beyond. Tweed serves as a gateway to a world of possibilities, alluding to the past, present, and future, sometimes even all three simultaneously. It possesses a protean quality that keeps it relevant generation after generation.

In your view, what is it about tweed that has an enduring appeal in menswear?

I believe it’s in the weave itself – at the core of defining what tweed is. With its texture and dimension, tweed serves as a blank slate on which designers can play around with color combinations and patterns. It easily adapts into formal designs or can be incorporated into sneakers or bags. While we can speculate on the ‘why’ of it all, there’s no arguing that whether it was the Scottish lairds of the 18th century, the Ivy Leaguers of the 1920s, the powerbrokers of the 1980s, or today’s sustainability-conscious consumers, tweed remains timeless.

How have you seen tweed distinguish itself between a trad fabric and a fashion-forward textile?

It all comes down to the creativity of the designer using it. Take Junya Watanabe, for instance, who once crafted a jacket from neoprene and tweed. A boutique fabric manufacturer, Dashing Tweeds from London, does incredible things with the material. The playfulness and daring with which they create their patterns are unbeatable. I’ve even seen them integrate materials like luminescent threads to make the fabric glow in the dark, perfect for those evening bike rides.

Where does the best tweed come from?  And what makes it the best tweed?

Unquestionably, the finest tweed still comes from Harris Tweed in Scotland. Why? Simply because the weavers are deeply invested in centuries of tradition and care when producing the material. However, there are reasons to appreciate other tweed makers, sometimes even for contradictory reasons. For instance, Italian mills, not bound by Scottish traditions, have the freedom to experiment with lighter weights and yarn combinations.

How can a guy incorporate tweed in his wardrobe besides, say, a classic tweed blazer?

Even within the realm of tweed blazers, you’d be surprised at the variety you can find that is appropriate for anything from sportier to more formal gatherings. There are items made of tweed that you can incorporate into an ensemble – tweed waistcoats, and trousers; I even have a pair of work boots with tweed panels on them!

What have been some of your favorite collections, or pieces from collections, from the past, and currently, that incorporate Tweed?

The 2005 Joseph Abboud collection was brilliant in demonstrating how tweed can be used beyond the traditional blazer. In 2008, Gaultier featured a brushed tweed coat that was gorgeous and iconic from the get-go. For women, there was Virginie Viard’s Spring/Summer 2023 all-tweed collection for Chanel. At the recent Fall/Winter 2023-2024 showings, Thom Browne’s inaugural Couture collection featured a plethora of tweeds. Particularly striking was the mixed tweed trench with hand-embroidered grey and gold bullion thread. Giambattista Valli incorporated menswear into his presentation with tweed jumpsuits, while WooYoungmi provided a distinctly Asian perspective with her jackets. And who could forget the showstopper – a pleated, navy tweed skirt that actor Robert Pattinson wore to the Dior Homme show? Each of these instances marks a significant stride in Tweed’s relentless march into the future.

Joseph Pastrana is a New York-based fashion journalist who’s covered many Fashion Week seasons in New York, Paris and Milan, and has profiled and reviewed designers and collections, including Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Bill Blass, Louis Vuitton and others. He continues to cover fashion, art, interior design and luxury. His next book, Mirrorball – Reflections of Dance and Fashion, will come out this spring via Thane & Prose.

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