What is nTweed?
"What is Tweed?" Burke used a lovely and penetrating image in
one of his orations. "No man can tell when day passes into night,
but every man knows the difference between night and day." That is
true of the very simple question we in the Scottish Woollen Trade
are often called upon to answer. In return none of us can give a
definition which cannot be cut to shreds by exceptions. In fact, we
might again quote that same Burke's boast that he could drive a
coach and four through any Act of Parliament.
In the first of these small papers we told of the derivation of
the word. It is true we were rather telling a story - narrating a
legend like the old Minstrels - than recording the sober facts of
history. The story was an old one current in the Borders and
certainly has the stamp of likelihood upon it, but truly we cannot
quote chapter and verse. As in all old stories of the sort it has a
good many variations in detail, but they all come down to the same
basic fact that the name originated in the mistaken reading of the
old Scotch word Tweel for Tweed under the influence-conscious or
unconscious-of the knowledge that the cloth came from the valley of
the River Tweed. But after all the origin of a name does not cast
any clear light on the nature of the article named, though it may
help to do so by inference. That fact in the discussion is probably
the only fact that does stand like a rock in a storm. In those
happy far-off days the Press was not the power in the land it is
today or anyhow its domain was different. It may have been more
powerful, but it was much more limited. The Press had not extended
its empire to the vast territory of Trade Advertising which it now
occupies - somewhat fleetingly perhaps. But there is one particular
direction that is quite modern in this influence and that is the
artificial introduction of trade names. Looking back on these times
round the early days of the nineteenth century it is not likely
that the production of the name was intentional. Goods were not
written up m trade journals. There was no particular reason why
anyone should ever invent or adopt a name for an article excepting
that of convenience, and many, possibly most of the ancient cloth
names, were derived from the places where they were made - Worsted,
Cambric Muslin, Cashmere, Arras, Gala Tweel. It is an obvious
convenience in trade - a sort of short cut across a hill that saves
going round by the road. So today the wool man talks of N.Z. Cross,
Capes, or P.P., and the other wool man knows he means New Zealand
Cross Bred Wool, or fine wool from South Africa, or Merinos from
Perhaps we may come to some kind of conclusion by finding out what
sort of cloths Scotland made over a hundred years ago when Sir
Walter Scott and his shepherd check trousers were influential
enough to set a national fashion quite unconsciously At best
perhaps we might arrive at a sort of negative definition by
discovering what is not a Tweed. The old cloths were stiffer and
heavier than fashion now expects, made to wear and wear and wear.
The trade in woollen cloth in the valley of the Tweed was not new
It had been a staple of the country for several hundred years.
After the Union of the two Kingdoms a Board had been set up to
encourage industry of all sorts in much harassed Scotland, and
amongst other projects the Board of Manufactures and Fisheries, as
it was named, set out to improve this native industry by
instruction in better methods and by offering prizes for good work.
The seed fell on good ground and flourished. It had no uniform and
halcyon weather, but it did survive droughts, frosts, and gales.
The cloths made were solid, fairly well felted fabrics, and the
stage was set to take full advantage of the gradual changing of
clothing habits. To begin with native wools were used, and the
cloths were like the strong, dense cloths worn by seamen the world
over to this day. They were quite definitely Cheviots, and equally
definitely the yarn from which they were made was spun on the
woollen system - carded, that is to say, not combed - definitely
But in the early years of the nineteenth century finer wools began
to be used and by the time of Sir Walter Scott's ascendency the use
of German wools became common. It was not till later that Colonial
Merinos figured largely in Scottish demands. We have before us as
we write a whole packet of sales catalogues and reports, which by
some lucky chance have escaped destruction. They are dated from
1837 to 1844. The chief wools listed are " German Lamb " and "
German Fleece." These were the superfine Silesian and Saxony
Merinos - the Saxonies that gave to Scottish fine cloths the name "
Saxonies," which in quality are equivalent to the English "
Botanies." Colonial wools first penetrated the English markets and
the early Australian Merinos from Botany Bay gave the name to the
English quality. These old sale lists could form the basis of an
interesting excursion. One London sales report of 1840 gives the
prices of fine Australians and so forth as " ranging from 1s. 4d.*
to 2s. 3d.," and adds the comment "At and below 1s. 8d. clean
German Wools are scarcer and I would recommend English Sorts," and
then goes on to quote a long list of English qualities ranging from
lid. up to " Primes " at 16d. and " Picklocks " at 17d. In foreign
low wools for blankets from Turkey he reports 9½ d., and for
carpets from Russia, 7¾ d. to 8d. The expression 'clean' most
likely does not mean scoured wool, but rather in the ordinary
English meaning of 'good clean' as might be applied to pretty well
anything. The German wools probably lost about 20 per cent. against
the English wools 30 per cent. or thereby.
In those early days " Tweeds" were made chiefly for men. They were
mostly dark and dull colours, mostly dyed in the wool, though by no
means always. Long ago black and brown shepherd checks were made by
some pioneer souls by piece dyeing from cloth woven as real black
and white shepherd checks, just as novelty effects are sometimes
made now by piece dyeing on top of a pattern produced in the
weaving. As the technique of spinning improved, smaller yarns were
made and two coloured twist yarns came on the scene. "Pepper and
salt" effects appeared and later developed into the more civilised
"Bannockburns." The old patterns were chiefly little ground effects
in neutral colours.
Like other good Scotch products, such as whisky, our " Tweeds "
spread and spread outwards from the land of their birth. On the
whole the English versions ran more to clearer finishes and cloths
more suited to dress goods for women, while our Tweeds were more
masculine, rougher, and more woolly in surface. We in Scotland
never seem to have claimed proprietorship in the word, for we talk
of Scotch Tweeds in spite of the evident origin of the word, and at
this time of day it might be impossible to produce a definite
description that would satisfy everyone.
Now Scotland and the Scottish Woollen Trade never at any time
stood still. Always our people poked about for something new, some
new material, some new colour, some new process. This takes us back
to the old belief that wool dyeing is best. This belief has long
ceased to have any basis in fact. In the early days it was true,
because so few colours could stand the long process of the making
Some argue that " Tweeds " must be wool dyed effects or at any
rate yarn dyed, and that cloths that are piece dyed just are not "
Tweeds " by that very fact. This almost suggests that they claim
that it is colour and texture rather than the cloth itself that
must be considered. This fact of wool dyeing against piece dyeing
as part of a definition would land us in some queer situations, for
a man might buy a patterned cloth for himself and a plain coloured
cloth for a skirt for his wife both the same fabric from the same
loom and one might be incontestably Tweed and the other equally
incontestably not Tweed. Even more awkward would be the case if for
convenience' sake a colour originally wool dyed were for later
orders matched in piece dyed fabric so that the wife might find
that she had a Tweed skirt but her coat that matched it was not a
Tweed. That obviously would be absurd if the word Tweed is to have
any real practical meaning.
In early times only the best fast colours could come through the
long and severe manufacturing processes unimpaired. Now dyeing has
so progressed that if properly carried out shades may be equally
fast whether wool dyed, yam dyed, or piece dyed, and we have only
to consider which method is the most convenient for our stocks or
is most likely to produce just the effect we aim at. We did say "
if properly carried out." It still remains true that wool dyeing
has to pass through a more searching test than yarn dyeing, which
occupies a middle position, or piece dyeing, which has little to
endure once the colour is added.
And what are these considerations or reasons that decide the stage
at which the dyeing is done? To begin with, if you are seeking for
a mixture effect it is evident that the wool must be dyed before it
is spun, unless the effect is possible by the mixture of raw
materials that dye differently, such as wool and rayon. If a large
quantity of any particular colour is needed it may be quite
economical to dye the wool even if a mixture effect is not
required, but it does tend to lock up material in the yarn store;
equally obviously it does tend to produce a level colour all over
the cloth and prevent variation from one web to another.
Then it is obvious that if very small quantities of many different
colours are needed, like striping yarns, it is easier to make one
lot of white yarn and dye little lots as they are required, and
thus save locking up yarn and capital. Also, as there is of course
less working on the colour after it is dyed, there is a tendency to
achieve more brilliant shades. There is likewise a tendency to make
more waste in the different processes of winding necessitated by
yarn dyeing, and equally of course all that working on the yarn
tends to weaken the thread and so may delay the weaver. In all
these matters it is a balance of advantages and disadvantages that
must decide. In some cloths the use of a very soft spun yarn may be
an advantage - even a necessity - and it may be necessary to pay
for capital and dye in bigger lots in the wool, for a very soft
twist will obviously be unable to stand the processes of reeling,
dyeing, and winding involved in the dyeing of yarns.
Then, lastly, we come to piece dyeing. The first and most evident
advantage is that out of one white yarn you can produce an infinite
number of different shades of finished cloth, and the other equally
evident advantage is that by preparing the goods past the weaving
stage and storing the half finished cloth a much more rapid
delivery can be achieved after an order is received. These might be
called financial considerations. There are also some real
advantages, such as in many types of soft or velvet finishes where
raising or brushing comes in or some special milling effect is
needed. Piece dyeing enables very soft yarns to be used or yarns of
types of raw material that felt badly or otherwise deteriorate in
wool dyeing. For example. Angora fur matts terribly in dyeing and
also floats about in the dye vessels and so gets lost. Such
materials are best converted into yarn as early as possible in
their evolution into cloth. And so this choice, wool dyeing, yarn
dyeing, or piece dyeing, now depends on the manager and the
designer entirely. If properly carried out, one method is as good
as another in its final effect so far as the wearer is
Well we have not come much nearer a definition of Tweed - at least
we have not found a definition that could be embodied in an Act of
Parliament, or even very usefully registered for any purpose.
Tweed could perhaps be described rather than defined as a cloth of
medium weight, best adapted for suits for men and women. Not very
smooth in texture. Tending, but only tending, towards Cheviot
qualities. Tending, but by no means limited to broken effects of
colour, attained either by pattern or by blends of colour ; quite
definitely limited to wool spun on the Scotch system - that is,
woollen, not worsted yarn. It should show that slightly rough
surface and that kind of broken or varied colour that is more
suited to informal use than to ceremonial occasions. Such a
description brings us back to the quotation from Burke with which
we started. The word Tweed certainly conveys to us all an idea, an
image, but like night and day its edges are ill defined.
We in the Scottish Woollen Trade progress and progress. We were
and are adventurers in the old true sense. The days when we
invented or evolved Tweeds are long past. The idea has gone over
all the world and our reputation is now somewhat overshadowed by
our old pioneering and our old successes with heavy and somewhat
primitive cloths. Nowadays we prefer the name Scottish Woollen
Trade rather than our old and honourable title of the Tweed Trade
which has served its day and generation. For now we make many
things besides Tweeds - almost anything that can be fashioned out
of wool, and more than that - if new fibres are developed and are
accepted by the world we shall not allow prejudice to stay our
hand. We shall turn our old craft to new purposes, for it is the
craftsmen that count in such a trade as ours, not the financiers,
not the politicians, and certainly not what we made yesterday.
NOTES ON ILLUSTRATIONS.
The somewhat primitive Lion that stands at the beginning of this
number is the shield of King Robert II., as depicted in the
Armorial de Geire, a manuscript of the fourteenth century, which
was in the Royal Library at Brussels. Our tracing is from
Stevenson's Heraldry in Scotland.
Our two bridges are the first and last over Tweed - Tweedsmuir and
Berwick. The first is from a photograph by that master of animal
photography, Reid of Wishaw. For the latter the Editor is
responsible. The great old bridge of fifteen arches dates from
* For those of tender years to whom "pounds, shillings and pence"
are an historical mystery, this is how 'old' pre-decimal money was
organised. 2 farthings to the halfpenny, 3 pennies to the 'wooden'
threepenny bit, 2 threepennies to the silver sixpence, 2 sixpences
to the shilling, 2 shillings to the florin, 2 shillings and one
sixpence to the half crown, 20 shillings to the pound. . . . ah . .
. the good old days!