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Tartan Ferret

What is nTweed?

February 1944

"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 Victoria.

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 not worsted.

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 of cloth.
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 concerned.

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.

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 about 1634.

* 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!









E.S. Harrison



One of a series of fascinating articles written over the decades  by Edward Harrison who ran Johnstons of Elgin for 46 years from 1920 - 1966.

Commencing with the first in November 1931, the essays were published anonymously by the National Association of Scottish Woollen Manufacturers.

All these essays - and a host of other articles - are freely available in our Archives to Members of the Scottish Tartans Authority.

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