Squint and you’ll see it doesn’t take much to recognise Scotland in its tweeds. The ochre, green and blazing orange of an autumn hillside. The purple, pink and grey of a granite moor misty with heather. Handy when you’re hunting the elusive stag or skittish grouse. Stories are still told of the laird who sent his gillies into the hills dressed in different coloured tweeds, watching through his binoculars to see who would blend into his surroundings best.
THE LEDGER OF BESPOKE HUNTSMAN TWEEDS DATES BACK TO THE 1970S
Tweed didn’t just work as camouflage, it offered warmth and protection against the elements. As Campbell Carey, Creative Director of Huntsman notes, "The cloth that used to be made could weigh as much as 24 ounces. It was also very tightly woven to make it waterproof. The woollen fibres swelled up to give water resistance, keeping the rain out naturally."
These are not the qualities that now make tweed Huntsman’s most popular cloth. In fact it’s quite the opposite: customers are drawn to the bold checks and striking colours woven into the tailor’s signature tweeds. And from only 30 up to 60 metres available of each design, that’s quite an exclusive club to be in.
TWEEDS WERE CHOSEN BY MARKING FAVOURITES IN CHALK
While Huntsman tweed is much lighter these days – around 13 ounces – it’s still made from Shetland wool, which gives the cloth its character: versatile, robust and hard-wearing. "These are sheep that are grazing in the Outer Hebrides," says Carey, "their wool has to protect them. Compare that to merino wool from Australia, which is much finer because it’s keeping the sheep cool in the heat, and warm in the cold."
The yarn is spun in Yorkshire (a dying art, along with many other skills associated with the textile trade) then taken up to the Isle of Islay in Scotland and one of the world’s oldest mills. Its owners, Gordon and Sheila Covell, work with Huntsman to develop a signature collection of bespoke tweeds every one or two years. In the past the mill would make up a 20-foot blanket of all the tweeds under consideration. It was then unrolled on the floor of the Savile Row shop, with customers and staff marking their favourites in chalk. These days new designs are quickly mocked up on computer, although Carey is considering bringing the blanket back; it is still often used as a way of selecting the best colour option.
CUSTOMERS ARE INCREASINGLY CHOOSING VIBRANT COLOURS FOR THEIR OVERCHECKS
While there are a limited number of checks to choose from, including Prince of Wales, Houndstooth and Barleycorn, the introduction of an overcheck brings a wealth of options. And you can always play with the width of the check as well. For his own suits, Carey likes the intrigue of a dark cloth with a subtle pattern that reveals its secrets as you get closer to it. But he also gets a kick out of seeing “a relatively drab base, where someone really goes for it in the colour of the overcheck. Some customers have four, six or even eight woven into it.”
A recent commission came from a customer who added three colours to the overcheck, one for himself and two for his sons. It’s this chance to make something special – and unique – that customers really enjoy. Huntsman took the idea a stage further when they opened a pied à terre in New York, a few blocks down from Carnegie Hall. Discovering that there was a Carnegie estate tweed (Prince of Wales with an overcheck), they decided to mark the occasion by commissioning new colour schemes, inspired by the estate tweed, from three American customers well-known for their taste: Picasso scholar John Richardson, interior designer Robert Couturier and architect Leo A Daly III.
A TEST ROLL OF JOHN RICHARDSON’S CARNEGIE TWEED DESIGN
Inspiration isn’t hard to find, as Carey has realised. Huntsman still has its ledger showing every piece of cloth commissioned since the 1970s. And customers often bring in vintage garments dating back as far as the 1920s and 30s. The colours may have faded but just lift the lapel and you see the original cloth in all its glory.
Watch Treasures from Chatsworth, Presented by Huntsman at www.sothebys.com/Chatsworth
For more information, visit www.huntsmansavilerow.com