Richard Bath: In defence of tweed

AT least Matt Smith, the 26-year-old stripling who plays Dr Who, has an excuse.

He's been instructed to wear a tweed jacket to counterbalance his relative youth. I, as a gnarled old forty-something, have no such justification.

I inherited my first tweed jacket from my similarly outsized grandfather when I was an impoverished student in the late 1980s and, being a creature of habit, I virtually lived in it until it just collapsed and died. I bought my second on a whim in a sale about ten years ago.

Since then, instead of fighting my attraction to the clo mhor, 'the big cloth', I have surrendered to my guilty pleasure. When Tweedie Mk II finally expired, I was straight off to the Auld Yin's Cheap N' Cheerful Clothing Emporium where, if I remember rightly (and these days that's by no means a given), Tweedie Mk III was purchased for the princely sum of 89.99.

I now have only one jacket: it's a tweed number that I wear all the time. It's a laziness/affectation/sensible-clothes-selection (take your pick) which has been the butt of endless jibes from my appalled friends. One is so incensed by my fogeyness that at one stage she took to introducing me with an offensive title that sounded almost like "tweedy twit".

Even my mum, a strident old soul who generally parks herself in my corner when it comes to any rammy, reckons wearing tweed only marginally precedes the onset of a colostomy bag and Alzheimer's, and ostentatiously wrinkles her nose at my geriatric choice of clothing. Which is why we tweedies are a hardy and determined bunch inured to criticism and mockery.

So when the latest incarnation of Doctor Who unveiled his curious penchant for tweed and a bow tie, I had a little cheer at his back-to-the-future chic.

If Andrew Groves, course director for fashion at the University of Westminster, is any guide, I was in a minority of one.

"It seems a curiously British idea to make the lead character in a prime time TV show look purposely and perversely less attractive than they actually are," says Groves of Smith's nod in the direction of old-school time-travelling medics like William Hartnell, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy. "I can't think of anyone that would look at this image and then decide they would want to stick it on their bedroom wall."

If I was overjoyed by the good Doctor's sartorial salvation, my editor, on the other hand, sensed an opportunity. He looked around the room for someone to explain the allure of the tweedie, and he didn't have far to look.

So here it is, an attempt to unravel the joy of the world's – to some – least fashionable yarn. It was a commission that was greeted with sniggering from my colleagues. The general consensus is that it's at best a mildly embarrassing case to have to argue.

But they're wrong: wearing a tweed jacket isn't embarrassing and I'm not embarrassed. I'm proud to be a tweedie, proud to wear the same gear in which George Mallory attempted to become the first man to stand atop Everest, that Young and Old Tom Morris wore as they dominated successive Open Championships at the dawn of golf. It's the cloth that Georgina Bannatyne put on before catching the biggest salmon ever landed by an angler in Scotland and that the dashing Argentine Juan Fangio sported when he won his first Grand Prix at Monaco in 1950 in his flying Alfa Romeo.

I'm chuffed to wear the material that coated the noisy bit of every Fender amplifier until 1960, that enveloped guitar cases until the world stopped spinning on its axis when Buddy Holly went awol in the 1950s. That's a fact that doesn't just speak volumes, it weaves a siren tune.

Besides, it's not as if tweed is a fashion statement. It's worn because it's incredibly comfortable, water-resistant, warm and unfeasibly hardy. And if it was good enough for generations of Highlanders and for the tough men of Donegal, then it's good enough for me.

Not only do I like wearing it, but it also means I'm also performing a vital economic activity. For most of the last 25 years I've functioned as a one-man job creation scheme, with my predilection for the twill doing so much for the Hebridean economy that I think the mandarins in Brussels should be channelling their largesse into the Bank of Bath rather than handing over chunky Euro-denominated grant cheques to Harris, Lewis, Uist and Barra, not to mention the Ulstermen of Donegal.

Tweed is apparently on the decline. The Kenneth Mackenzie Mill in Stornoway, one of the three main mills manufacturing tweed and the one where my granny had a summer job as a kid, closed down this year with the loss of 85 jobs. Last year, the island's weavers produced 500,000 metres of the cloth compared to seven million metres in the 60s. There is, to be sure, trouble at t'mill.

I'm doing my best to stem the tide to the point where I've become a serial offender. Not only do I have a jacket, I also have a very smart pea-green coat given to me by my wife over a decade ago, some old rather musty breeks whose provenance I can't quite fathom, and a brown tweed tie, left to me from my father-in-law's possessions and reserved for occasions so special that one has yet to occur.

Oh, and I have a tweed cap studded with Ally's shrimps, Garry dogs and other fishing hooks, which keeps the water off my head when splashing around in rivers after salmon. The alternative is a baseball cap, but that never, never works because I'm neither Casey Jones nor Babe Ruth.

Besides, it's literally the law that Harris Tweed, which you can tell by the famous trademark of an orb topped with the Maltese cross, has to be hand-woven by Hebridean islanders in their own homes from virgin wool dyed and spun locally. There's something deeply appropriate about pursuing the contemplative sport of fishing while wearing a hat produced in such a time-honoured fashion.

I didn't realise before I started investigating the subject for this piece, but each of my tweed garments is apparently a crime against fashion, which basically means I am a crime against fashion. I know this because there are endless websites for truly-vain, metrosexual, navel-gazing new men on the web, and they all seem to agree with GQ's Vintage Style Guy Guide.

"If you are a college professor, particularly in the liberal arts, you can wear tweed all the time and the worst that will be thought of you is that you're absentminded," writes some effete cliche-monger in a black polo neck, probably from his loft in Soho. "But if you're not the academic type, tweed should not be thought of as a uniform. It's country wear. It's for attending horse races and county fairs, for quail hunting, poacher apprehending, peat inspecting, cold-weather golfing and serf evicting. Tweed is definitely not for urban business or evening affairs. But as long as you're in the right place at the right time, tweed will never go out of style."

As I don't have a spare PhD hidden up the sleeve of my tweed jacket, and I'm not the sort of banjo-playing backwoodsman who owns serfs, it would appear that my fashion radar is so terminally awry that the fashion police will be arriving to lock me up any minute.

Only they won't. Because the fashionistas are now claiming tweed as their own. Earlier this year Vivienne Westwood put on a glittering fashion show featuring tweed in Stornoway, while Madonna, Kate Moss and Stella McCartney declared themselves devotees. Deryck Walker, the Scottish Designer of the Year, garnered rave reviews for his tweed collection at Paris Fashion Week in December. Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Nike and Louis Vuitton have all incorporated swathes of tweed into their collections for this year, while the ultimate fashion victims otherwise known as the Japanese are so mad for the stuff that the go-ahead outfits like Harris Tweed Estates Mill at Shawbost on Lewis and the Harris Tweed Textiles Mill at Carloway are – unlike the purveyors of the ultra-traditional men-only designs at the Kenneth Mackenzie Mill in Stornoway – struggling to keep up with demand.

So, far from being a sartorial renegade, I'm officially every right-thinking fashionista's wet dream. Just as wee Jack McConnell, the former First Minister, made a splash when he turned up in New York showing his knees in a little black number of a kilt that looked like a skirt, so tweed is undergoing a radical re-evaluation and modernisation that will surely soon see it ascend to its right and proper place as the fabric of the nation.

As for those closed-minded souls who've baited and barracked me for my love affair with the rough stuff, they can pucker up and kiss my tweedy breeks. I'm a man of the one true cloth, and proud of it.


Top-drawer tailors such as Norton & Sons of Savile Row stock about 3,000 different handwoven tweeds from mills and individual weavers in Scotland and Yorkshire. Harris tweeds and those from Mull are lighter, around 14oz, and softer are best for spring and autumn wear. Winter tweeds, weighing up to 32oz, are predominantly from Borders mills, tougher, more durable and perfect for outdoor country sports. With typical wear, they can last 50 years.


For aficionados, the classic tweed jacket is the three-button single breasted although two-button versions are sold in equal number. Patch pockets give a sporty feel. Sports jackets should have both a single centre vent and two side vents. Norton's garments have "very defined" shoulders, a shaped waist and slim sleeves to create an "elegant" silhouette.


The perfect bespoke tweed jacket starts with a client being measured and his figure examined. A paper pattern is made and the cloth cut and sewn to make the first "baist." The garment is then tried on, taken apart, re-cut, re-sewn and re-fitted. Typically, jackets are fitted three times before being completed. At top tailors, the clothes are sewn by hand with hand finished edges, linings and button holes.


Using the best tweeds and the best materials for traditional linings – such as the finest horse-hair body canvas and chest canvas, wool domette, linen, cotton silecia and cotton pocketing, with a mixture of cotton and silk threads – does not come cheap. The manufacturing process takes, on average, around three and a half months and will cost between 2,100 and 2,500 depending upon the cloth chosen. For those who can't wait that long, Harrods will next month be selling a new ready-to-wear line of the E Tautz brand – including the one pictured above – for 1,500. Previous customers have included Sir Winston Churchill, film star Cary Grant and the Kings of Spain and Italy.