Is Tweed a Sustainable Fabric? How It's Made and Environmental Impacts

Learn what impact the production of tweed has on the environment.

Display of Harris tweed jackets.
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Traditionally made from wool, tweeds are simply patterned woven textiles made with a variety of colored threads. While primarily a woolen fabric, tweed can also be made with wool blends, cotton, and synthetic fibers.

Where does tweed fall on our sustainable scale? Here, we explore how this fabric is made and how its environmental impacts compare to that of other fabrics.

How Is Tweed Made?

The majority of tweed in the world is woven in Britain with wool that comes from Australia. Because tweed is a woolen material, the first step in making tweed is the shearing of wool from sheep. The wool fibers are then cleaned and carded into strands that are spun into spools of thread. The fibers are typically dyed prior to weaving in order to achieve the colors and patterns that tweed is known for.

Types of Tweed

How the textile is woven depends on the type of tweed produced. Here are some of the most common types:

Twill Weave

A good portion of tweed is produced using a twill weave. A 2/2 twill weave consists of the warp (vertical) yarn floating over and then under two threads of the weft (horizontal) yarn. This results in a diagonal pattern. It is not uncommon for other weaves such as a 3/1 to be used as well depending on the desired pattern.

Twill weave is a very durable weave, often used for items needing more stability such as denim, bags, and furniture coverings.

Harris Tweed

Harris Tweed is a trademarked fabric that is only produced in the Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the coast of Scotland. What's unique about this material is that the wool is dyed prior to spinning it into thread. This allows different colored fibers to be combined, creating a distinctive blend and design.

Harris Tweed uses low-impact dyes instead of natural dyes because the plants that would typically be used are now protected. Most of the wool used in Harris Tweed comes from Scotland.

Bernat Klein Tweed

Bernat Klein's coloring technique emerged in the 1950s and was part of the defining features associated with Chanel's line of feminine suits. His novel technique of dyeing yarn produced multicolored threads that created small spots of color within the fabric.

Klein also combined lightweight wool with mohair to create a luster effect on the textile. The coloring technique along with variations in yarn twisting created textiles that stood out among the typical neutral-colored tweeds of the time.

Environmental Impacts

The shipping of tweed from Australia to other countries produces inevitable carbon emissions. However, the majority of the environmental concern comes from the raising of livestock.

According to a case study done on sheep raised in the United States, over 70% of all emissions on these farms come from methane gas. There are higher emissions and pasture irrigation impacts from farms that breed for meat and dairy. This dual-purpose farming will probably become more common if demands for wool decline.

Impact on Sheep

Sheaving wool from sheep
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Along with the environmental impacts of tweed production, there is some controversy around shearing sheep. While many specialists say it is inhumane not to shear the sheep, animal activists often raise concerns about animal exploitation.

Treehugger Tip

When it comes to purchasing decisions, it is best to buy products made from wool sourced from smaller operations. Do your research on companies and ensure workers are paid fairly and not per sheep sheared; this typically means they can take their time and not cause undue harm to the animals.

Tweed vs. Cotton

While tweed can be made with other fibers, the majority of it is made from wool. Despite the concerns with greenhouse gas emissions, wool is considered a low-impact fiber because it does not require many resources. It helps that sheep typically graze in pastures without the need for extra feed.

Cotton, on the other hand, is a large contributor to pesticide pollution and water usage. However, when grown organically, these concerns are reduced. Cotton can also be cultivated without the possibility of harming animals, scoring itself environmental points.

The Future of Tweed

Tweed is a unique fabric that has simultaneously maintained its traditional production methods while the final products continue to evolve. The manufacturing has mostly stayed close to its originating locations in the United Kingdom, which continues to be the main exporter.

Wool specifically produced in Australia that is marketed as organic is growing in demand. Consumer research has shown that people are much more interested in the natural fibers of wool than their synthetic counterparts.

However, having the fibers labeled as organic is not as strong a selling point as knowing where the wool comes from, how sustainable it is, and having concerns for animal welfare addressed.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is tweed fabric vegan?

    While tweed can be made of all vegan materials, it is typically made of wool from sheep.

  • Is tweed biodegradable?

    Tweed is usually a biodegradable fabric.

View Article Sources
  1. Anderson, Fiona. Tweed. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

  2. Nascimento, Joana S. "Working the Fabric: Resourcefulness, Belonging and Island Life in the Harris Tweed Industry of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland." The University of Manchester (United Kingdom). ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2020. 27986754.