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Tweed – The original performance fabric
“Lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is,” Bertie Wooster once remarked of his favourite tweed suit. “Doubtless in order to avoid him, Sir,” replied the ever-reliable Jeeves. Not a remark a chap’s ever likely to hear if he’s riding around town in Rapha’s take on this celebrated fabric, the Rapha Tweed Softshell.
Tweed, as any sartorially-minded fellow can tell you, hails from Scotland where it was originally known as ‘tweel’ by word of mouth. A coloured variant of twill, a traditional two-threaded weave, it was in the 1830s that a London fabric merchant mistakenly assumed a roll of material he had received from the River Tweed area had been misspelt. Today, the term ‘tweed’ is used to describe a wide variety of woollen and worsted cloths but it has always been synonymous with sporting performance.
A close relative of the tartans worn by Scottish clansmen as far back as the 16th century, just as tartans were used as a rallying point for members of the same family, so tweeds were used to identify those who worked on Highland estates. These ‘Estate Tweeds’ came into being around the 1840s, when the increasing volume of wool imported from Australia led to the decline of the native Cheviot sheep. With landowners looking for alternative revenue streams, flogging deer stalking and grouse shooting rights to wealthy southerners became a nice little earner. Thus, Scotland’s grand sporting estates were born and estate tweeds quickly became the uniform of choice.
Outdoor clothing for the sporting gentleman has always required function and form to go hand-in-hand. Sporting tweeds were developed to break up the wearer’s appearance and help them blend into the landscape particular to individual hunting estates. Even bright colours, such as red and yellow, worked effectively when combined with more sober ones and weaves could also be altered to cater for the changing seasons.
These colour combinations were meticulously researched in a bid to find the most effective solution. On the Strathconon Estate, in Ross-shire, one local weaver produced as many as eight colour variations before sending stalkers into the surrounding hills to see which proved least visible (the tweeds worn by those that avoided shotgun fire won out). In the field, these proved extremely useful for camouflaging deer stalkers, helping to disguise both a sportsman and his guide as they crept ever closer to a keen-eyed stag.
Although Estate Tweeds exist in near countless combinations, some styles have become more universal than others. Glen Feshie, the oldest, is a simple black and white design and based on the checked cloth originally worn by shepherds. In the 1870s, it was adopted as the official livery of the New York Gun Club. By the 20th century, it had spread worldwide and became known simply as ‘gun club’. Glenurquhart, another black and white check, is the tweed most widely adopted by the fashion world, while tartan, unsurprisingly, refers to designs based on clan tartans.
One of the more notable chapters in the story of tweed is the ‘Norfolk’ jacket, which has been de rigueur among sporting types since the 1860s. Thanks to the patronage of a dandy-ish Prince of Wales, his Royal Smartness made the Norfolk instantly recognisable as the single-breasted, semi-formal jacket that survives today. With box pleats back and front and a belted waist, the Norfolk was created in response to conventional shooting jackets that tended to restrict arm movement when the rifle was raised to the shoulder. It was for precisely this reason that the Norfolk featured a reinforced shoulder pad, much like the Tweed Softshell, although our reinforced shoulder is intended to protect against bag straps rather than the damage caused by hefting your 20-bore Holland & Holland Royal Over-and-Under (if you need to ask, you can’t afford one).
The Norfolk’s overall aesthetic was one of understatement and at the same time conferring a certain distinction upon the wearer (much like the Tweed Softshell). Made from a tough wool fabric, the Norfolk Jacket was breathable and insulating and a robust construction ensured it would improve with wear. It is at this point that the humble bicycle enters our tale.
An affordable means of travelling further and further afield, the rise of the bike in the early 20th century proved a simple way of carrying not just man but also equipment for a then relatively new social pursuit – camping. The father of modern camping was one Thomas Hiram Holding, a tailor from Shropshire who used his professional know-how to make a very lightweight tent, as well as specialist apparel designed for cycling and camping for which tweed proved ideal.
Holding was a founder member of the Bicycle Touring Club, an organisation variously headed by some of the greatest outdoorsmen of the age. Among them were Captain Robert Falcon-Scott, of Antarctic fame, and Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout movement. That the club was able to attract such august fellows lay in the fact that, in its early days, camping was considered a gentleman’s pursuit, one that sat as comfortably alongside hunting, shooting and fishing as trophy antlers above the mantelpiece.
This, in turn, led to the notion of the ‘gentleman gypsy’, a cultured wayfarer navigating Britain’s country lanes resplendent in tweed. It wasn’t long before the poor air quality in Britain’s cities spawned other social movements, those with missions to encourage the masses out of urban areas and into the fresh air. “There goes the neighbourhood”, as various members of the landed gentry might have said when the great unwashed pedalled up the drive.