Timeless tweed: a British classic carries on

A British classic carries on

When early adventurers set off for Everest and the poles, their kit generally included a sturdy tweed jacket. Hand-woven wool tweed is as durable and warm as natural fibres get, even in the chilly drizzle of its native Britain. The toughest is known as “thornproof”–not because it will repel the stab of a thorn, but because you can pull one out of the weave without injuring the fabric.

But its lustrous colours and rich texture have also made tweed a recurring standard for international men's designers such as Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Hugo Boss. And if you think it's just for fusty professorial types, consider this: Nike ordered nearly 10,000 metres of Harris tweed for a new line of tweed-sided trainers, which launched last fall. For women, the Chanel-style tweed jacket is enjoying a big surge in popularity. Jimmy Choo has used Harris tweed in his iconic shoes. Prada and Louis Vuitton have turned to Harris tweed for their sought-after handbags and suitcases. And, if you can believe it, the MTV show Pimp My Ride, in which late-model cars get a makeover, has even restyled interiors in tweed. You can't get much more “street” than that.

The term “tweed” simply means a woven wool fabric, originally from Scotland. The yarn is usually spun from fibres of several colours, which can provide useful camouflage for hunters. Sticklers for tradition count Harris tweed as the top of the line. Hand-woven by craft weavers–mostly men–in cottages in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland, Harris tweed is imbued with the romance of tradition. To the relief of many, it's no longer imbued with the once-traditional mordant used to set the natural vegetable dyes that give the wool its vivid earth tones: the urine of the weavers and their families.

Since the early 1900s, the fabric has been validated by an organization that is now known as the Harris Tweed Authority. The genuine article is certified with an orb-and-cross logo and the name of the island–Lewis, Harris, Uist or Barra–on which it was woven. So seriously is this matter taken that it's governed by the Harris Tweed Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1993.

Some people welcome a freer interpretation of the fabric, however. “Tweeds are popular still, but if you're into real luxury, you get the classic Glen check–your classic Irish or Scottish tweed–blended with cashmere,” says English tailor Tom Mahon. “You can get wonderful mixtures, and that makes it so ostentatious.” Mahon, who writes the illuminating, spent several years with the revered London haberdasher Anderson & Sheppard, and has cut fine suits for singer Bryan Ferry, actor Sir Alec Guinness and the Prince of Wales. (“There's a lot of people that have met Prince Charles but not many have met him in his underpants.”)

Classic tweed tips the scale at 18 to 22 ounces, and since the dawn of central heating, “a traditional tweed three-piece suit would be a lot of weight,” Mahon says. So instead, he recommends a blend, like the Glorious Twelfth range–named for the customary August opening date of the British shooting season–from fabric merchants Porter & Harding. “They're classic tweedy designs, but they come in 330 grams–11 ounces–the traditional suiting weight. So it's lovely to wear, but you wouldn't wear it for shooting. That's how tweeds have advanced.”

The essential tweed garment is the shooting jacket. “If it's really for shooting, you can put pleats on the back, so when the bird flies overhead, you can reach forward for firing the rifle,” says Mahon. “Some people do have them and never pick up a gun.” Then there's the shorter, more form-fitting hacking jacket, designed for riding.

Classic tweed coats have distinctive design characteristics, like functional cuff buttons. “There's different stories about how we got buttons on the cuffs,” says Mahon. According to one version, they originated with country veterinarians, who had to roll up their sleeves to perform certain gruesome but necessary tasks, as readers of James Herriot are aware.

Among other utilitarian detailings, pockets are generally set on a slant, and there should be an out-ticket pocket (an extra smaller one with a flap). “Also what we do, which is quite popular, especially with a shooting jacket, is a poachers' pocket inside,” says Mahon. This very wide pocket in the lining has many uses. “You can put a rabbit in there,” suggests Mahon. “The other option is to put your alcohol in there.”

Harry Rosen in Canada will hand-make tweed pieces to your taste and measurements through their bespoke tailoring service, available in Toronto and Montreal. Suits start at $2,500. If you must have a jacket from the same hands that have cut clothes for the Prince of Wales, you can arrange to meet Mahon in London or New York. His fees start at about $2,600 (£1,070) for a jacket and $3,900 (£1,610) for a two-piece suit.

For the trend-setter, New York's Alexandre Plokhov is offering a decidedly dashing lineup for the fall of 2005, inspired by retro aviators and explorers, and featuring Harris tweed items like a short alpine jacket for about $1,315 (US$1,060) and a longer, double-breasted Alpine coat for around $1,550 (US$1,250). His label, Cloak, retails through Boutique U&I (Montreal), TNT (Toronto) and Richard Kidd (Vancouver). More conservative, but still of the moment, would be a designer tweed jacket from the Hudson Room at the Bay in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, its President's Room in Montreal or the West End Room in Toronto's Queen Street store. Jackets start at $495; the likes of Hugo Boss run $695 to $750.

For no-nonsense, lifetime durability, even the Queen turns to Barbour. The venerable company expanded its tweed line a few years back, with garments like the Country Harris Tweed Jacket (about $1,150) and the Sporting British Wool Tweed Jacket (about $1,025). These may be ordered through Carrington & Co. (Fredericton), Baron Sport (Montreal), Stollery's (Toronto), O'Conners (Calgary) and S. Lampman (Vancouver).

In 1999, searchers identified the body of George Mallory, who lost his life near the top of Mount Everest in 1924. No one knows whether he had already reached the summit (in which case he would have beaten Sir Edmund Hillary by almost 30 years). The famous mountaineer's identity was confirmed when his name was found embroidered inside the Savile Row Harris tweed jacket he was still wearing. What better illustration of the style and endurance of genuine tweed?