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Falling thread over heels for Scottish tweeds at their cold northern sources

September 29, 1996|AMANDA MAYER STINCHECUM | Stinchecum is a New York-based freelance writer and textile historian

BEAULY, Scotland — Ask a Scot what a tweed is and he'll answer vaguely, "Well, it's hairy, like." That is to say, if you ran into one on a dark night you'd know it (if you were a Scot). But if you think of the original purpose of a Scottish tweed--to protect the hunter or fisherman from the wet, windy weather of northern Britain and to keep him hidden from his prey--you will reach a deeper understanding of the fabric itself.

A Scottish tweed possesses three important features. Its hairiness springs from the yarn, made up of short fibers carded to blend them.

Its subtle colors mirror the hues of the land itself, a result of dyeing the wool fibers in batches of different colors and mingling them together before they are spun into yarn. A desire for camouflage while hunting in the hills has dictated the traditional tweed colors--the browns, greens and grays reflect the bracken, grasses, mosses, heather and gray outcroppings of rock typical of the Highlands landscape.

And third, tweed's twill-weave construction is packed more tightly and densely than simple plain-weave fabric, providing better protection against weather.

Scotland is still famous for the quality of its woolens, and particular types of cloth maintain their near-legendary association with certain locales. The Scots have woven and worn hairy, multicolored wool clothing for hundreds of years. But it was only in the early decades of the 19th century, when the gentry in both England and Scotland took up the coarse, sturdy cloth, that it came to be called tweed.

The word tweed derives from the Scottish pronunciation of "twill" as "tweel." Tweels woven in the Borders region of southeastern Scotland were in great demand in London by the 1840s. Through a clerk's copying error, so the story goes, "tweel" was rewritten as "tweed," mistakenly identifying the heavy cloth with the area around the River Tweed, which flows through the Borders where most of what remains of Scotland's woolen industry is still active. But two of the finest tweeds, with long and solid traditions, are still made in the remote Highlands region.

Harris tweed from Harris (the southern portion of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides islands west of Scotland) and the stalking tweeds worn traditionally for hunting and fishing and made by Hunters of Brora on Scotland's northeast coast are among those tied to clearly defined places.

Harris tweed was once a cottage industry--manufactured by hand in the homes of local people for their own use and to make a little extra money. Even the tweeds of Brora grew from the tradition of the checked cloaks worn by shepherds on the hill.

Campbell's of Beauly--a 30-minute drive west of Inverness--is the Scottish tweed shop par excellence. Shelves are piled to the ceiling with tweeds the colors of the hills. They are famous throughout Britain and well enough known elsewhere to bring in the hunting set from Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. I heard about it first from a canon of Winchester cathedral who spent his holidays among the strange peaks nearby; then from the laird of a 120,000-acre estate in the Highlands who buys tweeds for himself and his gamekeepers there; then from Eric Allen, proprietor of the Airds Hotel in Argyll, who has his kilts tailored there.

Tweed Mercers by Appointment to H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Campbell's has been in the tweed business for more than 130 years and in the present shop since about 1866. The royal warrant, given to chosen merchants by various living members of the Royal Family, is a mark of the highest quality and reliability. Campbell's also held the Warrant for the late Duke of Windsor. Nevertheless, Miriam Campbell, with her lovat eyes and the finest, whitest hands I have ever seen, welcomed me by name when I appeared at the shop after an interval of four years, and again in the summer of 1995--six years later. That's the kind of people the Campbells are.

Miriam Campbell, who runs the business with her brother James and sister Catriona, couldn't say exactly how many different tweeds they carry, but there were 22 in stock made exclusively for Campbell's. Because the majority of their customers are "the hunting and sporting lot," as she described them, the emphasis is on tweeds in the lovats, browns and grays of the hills, but there are amethysts and pinks, blues and a few reds, as well.

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