Tweed fabric originated with Harris Tweed in the western Scottish Isles. Traditionally, tweed is a rough, hardy, woven wool fabric made to withstand harsh weather conditions and most often worn as outerwear. While some modern tweed may be made by a machine, traditional tweed continues to be hand spun and woven.
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Tweed originated in Scotland, where islanders from the Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra isles wove the cloth from thick woollen yarn. Now known as Harris Tweed, this fabric proved very useful and was special to the islanders. They took pride in using only yarn from island sheep and hand-weaving in their own homes. The Harris Tweed tradition has lasted centuries, and while it may now use wool produced in other locations, not much has changed from the traditional method.
The foundation of any tweed is the wool yarn used for weaving. Tweed yarn differs from regular knitting yarn in that it has a special twist to ease the tension that the large looms create on the wool when it's being woven. Tweed yarn must be strong in order to withstand the weaving and the tough weather conditions the fabric was designed to face. Tweed yarn also differs from most knitting yarn because it is dyed directly in the wool, rather than by the skein.
While many modern tweeds are factory-produced on large machines for mass production, Harris Tweed and a few smaller varieties continue to be produced at home by skilled individuals. While weavers once wove tweed completely by hand, the demand has grown too great, and now rapier looms aid the process. The rapier is the preferred loom for tweed weavers, as it weaves double-width rather than single-width tweeds, a tailor's preference.
To finish the Harris variety, the weavers send their woven but unfinished fabric to a mill for finishing. The darning department removes loose ends and tidies up the tweed to be passed on to the tailors. Washing and drying tightens the tweed before the fabric is put through the weft-straightener, which straightens the tweed into its finished shape. While variations of finishes may be added, the tweed is essentially finished after straightening.
While the traditional Harris Tweed process is still used, there are different variations of modern tweed fabrics. Lighter weight tweed has become popular throughout the 20th century, especially in the 1950s and 1960s with Coco Chanel's Linton tweed suits. Linton tweeds introduced the use of lighter weight, man-made yarns. The Linton company made its tweed to market to couture houses. Linton's lightweight tweed paved the way for many variations of tweed fabrics. Some tweeds blend wool, and other yarns including cashmere, mohair, and chenille during the weaving process. Ribbon may also be woven into the tweed, and modern tweeds may be dyed at various stages of the fabric making process.
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