If a modern tweed itches, it’s purely a design choice by textile manufacturers.
A common misconception about tweed is that it’s always scratchy; traditionally abrasive against bare skin, conventional knowledge often stipulates that tweed should only be worn as a jacket and with collared shirts lest the wearer run the gauntlet of discomfort. While many tweeds – particularly the more rustic in character – are slightly abrasive, this isn’t true for all of them.
The factors determining the scratchiness of any given tweed are the wool quality and the milling/finishing process. The former often attributed as a key player in the itch question, however it’s actually less important than the finishing. In essence, the length of yarns used (long vs. short staple) may make for less itchiness, though usage of long staple yarns more important for the fabric’s other defining characteristics such as tensile strength and durability. Short staple fibres will be somewhat more troublesome for itchiness, but the main consequence for their use in weaving cloths to be used for tailored clothes is lower durability and difficulty in maintaining shape. The key takeaway at this point is that a high quality long staple yarn can be woven into a tweed, however if said yarn is coarse, the cloth woven from it will still feel abrasive.
This is where the milling process comes in. Wool coarseness is determined by the type of sheep at first, however modern milling techniques can see a coarse yarn turned into a fine worsted; the reason we have much finer and less itchy woollen fabrics as a whole today – compared to say, 50 years ago – is due to advancements in textile finishing processes. As such, the mill retains the decision-making power over whether any given tweed cloth they weave is to be fine or coarse. The type of finishing that the chosen yarns are subjected to determines the itch factor.
Depending on your own preferences, you may be wondering why any mill would choose to continue making itchy tweeds. There are a number of factors: tradition can be a prominent one, particularly in the UK where rustic tweeds were quite coarse and often hand-woven, and the mill may wish to continue this heritage. Many British mills do so, and most itchy tweeds come from that part of the world. Another factor is price; it’s cheaper to manufacture itchy tweed, since short staple yarns can be used – though this isn’t always the case, higher end textile manufacturers will use high quality coarse yarns – and less finishing is required. Utility is another factor to consider, as a) a high quality coarse tweed can be subjected to considerable punishment for a long period of time yet retain its integrity and b) utilisation of lining means that a coarse jacket won’t cause trouble for the wearer.
There are a number of reasons why a mill might want to weave a non-itchy tweed too. Many of the premium Italian textile manufacturers – such as Loro Piana or Zegna – serve a clientele who wouldn’t be interested in an itchy tweed. Softness and comfort are part of the brand ethos at such a maker, thus their tweed offering is going to have a more contemporary and luxurious feel. There are also textile manufacturers in the UK and surrounds making tweed fabrics with no itch; one particular example is the Glen bunch – designed for use in making suits – from the Donegal-based firm Magee. Fully lined trousers are a rarity these days, and most clients commissioning suits are unlikely to tolerate itchy trousers in an era of comfort. Suiting tweeds woven from non-abrasive yarns are likely the sole saving grace for the idea of a tweed suit in the minds of most.
For those commissioning bespoke or made-to-measure, I have included some known bunch books with abrasive and soft tweeds.