“The English winter – ending in July, to recommence in August.” Byron’s view of the British weather was famous, but the rebel poet’s meteorological observations notwithstanding, by now the sun is – hopefully – peeking through the clouds, the mornings are brighter, the days longer, the sunsets later… and the opportunities to wear tweed are receding. Tweed is an autumnal and winter thing, belonging to the season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, swollen gourds, plumped hazel shells and all that: proof against the chill winds and showers, its colours mirroring the foliage of the season that drinks deeply from what Longfellow called “a beaker full of richest dyes”. However, at Huntsman on Savile Row, the new tweed year is already well under way. Barely have the Purdeys been locked away at the end of the shooting season than the “blankets” arrive from the Islay Woollen Mill. From these the new season’s tweeds are chosen.
And now Huntsman has developed an innovative system that unites the latest in computer-aided design (CAD) with this most traditional of British clothmakers. Provided you have £10,000 burning a hole in your pocket, you can walk into Huntsman, call for creative director Campbell Carey, a rangy, chisel-jawed, serious-featured Scot, and bespeak your own tweed on site: weight, colour, pattern, weave and all. “Lots of people can create a tweed, but it’ll not be structured from scratch. It’ll be: ‘These are the patterns and we can do it in these colours’,” says Carey with due gravity. “What we’re doing is pushing things further – and creating unique checks and designs.”
The idea of designing your own tweed is about as old as tweed itself. Historically, clan chiefs dressed retainers in clan-specific tartan. But by the 19th century the wearing of tartan in this way was dying out as the Highlands became a theme park for Victorian plutocrats, who, in search of distinctive cloths to dress their gamekeepers, ghillies and so forth, hit upon the idea of inventing their own tartan substitutes. Thus, patterned estate tweeds were born. Since then the tradition of a house tweed has made its way into the swatch books of many tailors who will offer unique checks, as do country outfitters, such as Purdey.
Estate owners had to do little more than look out of their windows for inspiration: for instance, the estate tweed of Balmoral evokes the granite of Aberdeen, while the celebrated Lovat drew its palette from the heather, bracken, sand, bluebells and trees around Loch Morar. But today, tweeds are also enjoyed by those who live in stucco-fronted Belgravia mansions, or sprawling Candela-designed apartments in New York. And instead of wanting to match the colours of the local landscape they seek something more personal. “There’s a customer who has three daughters, all with different coloured hair, and we included an overcheck that had those three different colours,” explains Carey. “Another guy has a navy-blue Ferrari with tan interior – he has a blue-and-tan tweed.”
Prior to CAD it was difficult to envisage how a finished garment was going to look from a scrap of cloth about 6in square, and even more so when envisaging a piece of clothing in a cloth that is only an inchoate idea in the imagination. “We looked at different CAD systems before selecting Apso, normally used in fabric mills and fashion houses,” explains Huntsman’s director of product development Carol Pierce. “This allows you to add extra colours, change colours, add overchecks, remove overchecks and play with the size of them. With a couple of clicks you can see the change – and the most beneficial thing is to see the silhouette; you can visualise what it looks like as a piece of clothing.”
But where to start? The trick, I found, is to have a copy of Scottish Estate Tweeds to hand – I keep mine by the bedside – for inspiration, and riffling through its pages I stopped at a dense check involving yellow, dark brown, green and cream. “That is what I want,” I said, pointing to one particular pattern, “only different.” And with that detailed brief echoing around the shop, I ambled out of the door.
A week later, like some rainforest pygmy seeing his first jet aircraft, I gazed in slack-jawed wonder at the computer renderings. I know that computers can do almost anything, but this was the first time I had seen computing power used for its true purpose of showing what a cloth that existed only in the mind would look like if made into a three-button sports coat.
The only problem was that I did not like any of them. The gamut ran from the sort of indecisive check that might have been worn by Laurence Olivier’s clapped-out, end-of-the-pier music hall performer in The Entertainer, to a pattern so vivid that it recalled the worst sartorial excesses of camera-bedecked American tourists of the 1960s. I was disappointed, but nothing like as disappointed as I’d have been if I had placed an order for 30m of the stuff and then found it unwearable.
I despaired. These green, yellow and brown checks populated my dreams, but Pierce and Carey suggested that I bring in the eight or so CAD printouts, and that we go through them together. What followed then was little short of magical.
I do not like my tweed to look new, but nor do I want it to look dull; this is why I often use vintage cloth. However, with a new tweed this is a bit like asking for the volume to be turned up and down at the same time. Nevertheless, Carey was able to break my rather vague request into a series of elements taken from one or other of the CADs. In an hour we were done.
“We’ve gone up in scale by about 50 per cent and made the check a lot more blocky. It’s much bolder than the original design inspiration, with high contrast yarns that accentuate the check,” says Carey. Added boldness was achieved by turning the dark brown into black. Meanwhile, the yellow component was made less lemony by using a twist yarn that subdued the overly citrus thread by combining it with a neutral colour. And the fabric’s twill structure (instead of hopsack, houndstooth, herringbone, four-point star, houndstooth on herringbone, etc) stopped the overall effect looking too much like a brightly coloured piece of graph paper made into a suit. “The cream or oatmeal warp breaks up the green-and-black weft,” explains Carey.
After that it was time for the nap – what sort of finish would my tweed have? The rule of thumb is that the more nap a cloth has, the softer and gentler it appears. Should mine be a hirsute cloth? “A clean-cut finish,” asseverates Carey without hesitation. “We’re not messing about here are we? Why try to hide what we’ve done? It’s an incredible cloth, but you have to be a certain type of character, a certain build and frame to carry it off.” Tactfully, he omits to say what type of character and body shape would do justice to this cloth.
Another CAD followed, and were I an actual customer I would have seen a blanket of the fabric before the mill fired up the looms. Instead, Huntsman went straight to the final fitting; a gamble, but one that paid off. I saw the fabric and the suit as one – it was a coup de foudre. The effect was just what I was after: Terry-Thomas meets the Duke of Windsor on the set of a TV adaptation of one of the less celebrated works of PG Wodehouse. Of course, at 15 ounces it will have to wait until after the summer… unless Byron’s weather forecast permits its wearing before the tweed season proper is upon us.