A wardrobe staple of Ivy Leaguers in the 1950s, the colorful and coarse Harris Tweed wool sport coat eventually lost its cachet when its popularity with the upper crust led to a deluge of lower-priced knockoffs made from inferior materials. Over the past five years, however, upscale clothing makers—including Attolini, Belvest, Borrelli, and Oxxford Clothes—have rediscovered the sport coat’s original, authentic fabric and found it to be the perfect material for their English country–inspired fashions.
Production of authentic Harris Tweed, which is distinguished by its trademarked orb logo on the label, remains a cottage industry in the most literal sense. Residents of the connected islands of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland weave the fabric by hand in their homes—a manufacturing process that limits the cloth’s availability. Many clothing manufacturers insist that the heft of the cloth—which used to weigh 18 to 20 ounces per half-yard but now can be as light as 6 ounces per half-yard—holds the shape of a jacket longer than the fine-micron wools that have been touted for the past few years.
The renewed interest in Harris Tweed might indicate a return to more season-sensitive fashion. “Under the previous banner of modern clothing advanced by the Italians, the suit became lighter, drapier, and seasonless,” says John Kalell, creative director of Southwick Clothing, the Lawrence, Mass., company responsible for first popularizing Harris Tweed sport coats in the United States in the 1950s. “Now with a return to heavier jackets, we might see a desire to bring back more seasonal clothing.”
Southwick Clothing, once one of America’s largest purchasers of Harris Tweeds, was among the first companies to resurrect the fabric. “The alliance of Southwick and Harris Tweed goes back a long way,” explains Kalell. “One became synonymous with the other 50 years ago when Southwick created its natural-shouldered jacket that became the standard for Ivy League fashion in America.” Nearly 20 percent of the 76-year-old clothing maker’s fall sport coat collection is fashioned in authentic Harris Tweeds. Compared to the original tweed pieces that Southwick produced during its 1950s heyday, the latest collection of jackets and topcoats features a leaner cut and a slightly more constructed shoulder.
“If we’re not the oldest company with the longest continuous use of Harris Tweed, then we’re certainly among them,” says Kalell, explaining that Southwick has culled many of the new complex weaves and check patterns from the company’s extensive archives and from those of the Harris Tweed Authority, the Scottish consortium of weavers who produce the cloth. “The depth and richness of the colors of these tweeds borrow from the local landscape,” he says. “They are part of the culture.”