North Ronaldsay wool

Recently there was the unveiling of a rather special piece of tartan, dating between 1500 and 1600, it’s a twill weave with a complicated 4 colour sett, and is the earliest piece of true tartan found in Scotland, it’s all been rather exciting and I look forward to seeing it later in the year.

photo: Alan Richardson V&A Dundee

For some time I’ve been thinking of spinning and weaving a little sample of an early tartan and this discovery has spurred me on, whether I do a copy of “it” or something along the lines I haven’t yet decided, but it is the current source of inspiration. Obviously hand spun using drop spindles – the wheel hadn’t made it to Scotland at that time, and as drop spinning is a particular favourite of mine I’m more than happy to start making metres of yarn. The type of sheep used is important, the likely original one was most likely the Scottish Dunface, it no longer exists, but the North Ronaldsay is similar, it’s still available although classed as a rare breed. They are unusual as they live on the beach, surviving on seaweed as opposed to grass, so rather special. They aren’t a large sheep, and are often tan or cream, with darker areas, but can give a reasonably white yarn once finished. I’ve always been keen on processing my own wool, and that means starting with a fleece, I haven’t (yet) sheared any, but it might still happen.

I’m going through the entire process from fleece to yarn, it’s much the same for any fleece really, it’s my usual way of cleaning and preparing almost any yarn from a single fleece – for multiple fleeces I often choose a slower but much more eco way, but more of that for another time.

The fleece is generally rolled into a nice tight bundle, it has already been skirted to remove the worst of the daggy bits and rough or torn edges, so after checking it over, it’s time for a soak. This fleece was just under a kilogramme so not difficult to manage. I’ve learnt over the years that an overnight soak in a large bucket of cold water does such a lot of good, it softens any mud or debris, and helps to loosen up the fibres.

It doesn’t get agitated too much , just to make sure it is all under the surface, sometime I confess that it takes a few days to work on all of any fleece, but there isn’t any harm in letting it sit a bit longer. The next day I take a large handful, drain or squeeze it to remove as much dirty water as I can, then using a smaller bucket with a little cheap detergent dissolved in some just warm water, I put the fleece in and very gently move it around, I’m feeling for any bits of vegetable matter – or similar and remove them and also any hardened clumps of wool or obvious short cuts. Often I will then do a fairly hot wash with a little more soap, a little hotter than hand heat to remove some of the lanolin, each fleece is different and each spinner prefers a different level of the grease. The North Ronaldsay has a reasonable level of lanolin already so I want to leave just enough in to make the spinning pleasant. Several rinses later and all at similar temperatures as you don’t want the lanolin to redeposit, it is taken out, drained and left to dry which can sometimes take a few days depending on the weather. A lot of this processing is best done outside, it’s a fairly wet and messy job but the garden does appreciate the enriched soaking water.

Once dry the fleece may well have clumped together a little, so it needs to be teased or picked apart to make the next process easier, basically just pulled to open up the fleece so it begins to look fluffier.

The next decisions are to whether to card or comb it and how to spin it , all the options give a different final result. There are two main ways to prepare wool fibre for spinning, each has advantages and disadvantages, and they go towards different types of finished yarn – carding or combing.

Carding uses a board with fine metal wires and aligns the fibres , it uses all the fibre – shorter and longer ones but is best for fibres no longer than 4″-5″, this mat of fibres is used rolled up across the direction of the alignment, so that all the direction is cylindrical and generally fairly loosely wrappt, the resulting sausage of fibre is now called a rolag. This is then spun from the end and is known as a woollen preparation. This uses almost every bit of the fibre with virtually no waste and is ideal for knitting, it makes a softer, fluffier,lighter, and warmer yarn.

The other preparation is combed, two sets of sharp fine angled nails arranged in pairs, the fibre is laced in one fixed comb and the other comb is swipped against the tines ( but not touching) picking up the longer fibres, this is continued until the first comb no longer gives up any more fibre it is then emptied and then swapped and the process repeated several times, the fully loaded comb is then locked down and the fibre is pulled off in a long strip, now known as top. This has all the best fibres arranged in parallel and the shorter ones have been left behind. Combing is the perfect preparation for weaving finer cloth, it does however leave a lot, perhaps 50% of fibre behind, but that can then be carded for woollen use, but tends to be a little chunkier or fuzzier than the rolags prepared from the original fibre.

We now have two different preparations of fibre, carded rolags, combed tops, and also the carded waste from the combings. Each of these can be spun either with a drop spindle or a wheel, and can be spun with a tight twist or a looser twist on either, so lots of possibilities for different yarns.

Samples of the different preparations with drop spindle spun single yarns
Left – Combed-almost white fine hard yarn
Centre – carded- ecru soft open yarn
Right – Carded from combed waste- dark ecru slightly neppy hairy yarn

So the decision in this case would be the combed prep, it’s almost white, which is important as there will be several colours to be dyed, and it’s smoother for weaving. The carder version with the complete fleece might work but when dyed will take the colour differently, interestingly perhaps but for this project the colours need to be purer. The re-carded version is fluffier and hairier so perhaps more suited to outer wear rather than skin soft, or perhaps even felted and used for rugs or blankets.

For this project I’ll be spinning on a simple drop spindle with a tight twist as it needs to be strong and fine.
The drop spindle would have been used up to the 1500’s, perhaps even later in Scotland. The treadle spinning wheel didn’t appear much before 1200 in the rest of the world, and it was slow to be adopted. Various thoughts that the spinning wheel is faster than the spindle are correct – if the spinner is seated and working, but the spindle is portable, light and easy to carry, and can be used almost anywhere, so over the course of a week there might not be much between the two. In the early years where a “great wheel”, a simple hand turned large wheel, was used it was actually forbidden by law to use that yarn as warp, only as weft where strength wasn’t so important, so drop spinning was very important at that point, of course things changed with the invention of spinning machinery.

drop spun complete carded fibre, slightly cream
drop spun from combed fibre, almost white

The yarn is being spun as a single as was the original sample tartan, indeed quite often plying wasn’t done, if the single yarn is stong enough then it’s almost a waste to have to spin twice the quantity to ply, albeit you get a more balanced and thicker yarn, but time and effort was very much a consideration. It can take 8 – 10 spinners to keep on weaver busy, so it’s really a valid consideration.

After spinning the spindle is unwound onto a niddy-noddy, tied in 4 or more places and then washed to remove any grease and dirt before dyeing, but also to help to “wet finish” or set the twist.
The niddy-noddy is simply a tool to help organise the yarn by creating a series continuous loops carefully curated into an organised skein but also helps to roughly measure the yardage or meterage, it creates a series of loops carefully curated into an organised skein. Once off the niddy-noddy the yarn curls up because of the spinning twist, but once washed and soaked it relaxes into the well known form of skein or hank.

300 metres singles on Niddy-Noddy with figure of 8 ties to prevent tangles
washed and finished yarn, lovely and smooth and straight with freshly skeined yarn twisted and tight

The yarn is now finished, until the next process, either dyeing and weaving, it’s generally better to keep yarn in skeins until it is ready for use, there is less stress on the fibres and easier to see what the yarn feels like and responds to handling.

Processing a raw fleece is a lot of extra work but it is something important for me to feel and touch the fibre, and gives a better understanding of the wool, and every breed is different, and there is a lot of variation even within a single fleece. With careful work it is possible to create a yarn that fits the right criteria for a project. This one I’m only getting about 30% of usable combed fibre yarn for my project, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the wool is wasted, simply it will find a use for another project.

The raw fibre and the finished singles yarn

The remaining fibre will be spun up and then used to create 2 ply yarn, both spinning and plying on the same wheel it’s a perfectly good knitting yarn, it will be a chunky lighter weight perfect for hats and scarves, but I don’t yet have a use for it!

Background are the singles on the bobbin, foreground 2 ply washed and ready to knit, the colour is much closer to the original fleece, a nice light grey brown marl. I will be creating quite a quantity of this one, but every spinner has a healthy stash of finished yarns – just in case the right project comes along, but there is a lot of work to complete on the proper spinning first.

What is tartan, or what is “a” tartan ?

There is often a confusion about where tartan came from and what it actually means, ultimately it can be difficult to clear up the misunderstanding but perhaps the following thoughts might help.

Tartan , some common dictionary definitions

  • a pattern of different coloured straight lines crossing each other at 90 degree angles, or a cloth with this pattern
  •  a pattern of squares and lines of different colors and widths that cross each other at an angle of 90°, used especially on cloth, and originally from Scotland

From the Scottish Register of Tartans

  • Tartan (the design) is a pattern that comprises two or more different solid-coloured stripes that can be of similar but are usually of differing proportions that repeat in a defined sequence. The sequence of the warp colours (long-wise threads) is repeated in same order and size in the weft (cross-wise threads). The majority of such patterns (or setts) are symmetrical i.e. the pattern repeats in the same colour order and proportions in every direction from the two pivot points.

The word might have come from the Old French tiretaine ( c.1247) , meaning either a coarse mixed/union fabric of different warp and weft fibre or indeed a rich cloth, wool is often mentioned but it doesn’t appear that it was universal as linen or cotton was also utilised. There are even thoughts that it might have come from the City of Tyre or even brought in from Central Asia by the Tartars, both somewhat spurious…
Whatever the source it seems that it didn’t necessarily mean a patterned cloth, but more a long lasting or valuable one.

Woven cloth exists all over the world, anywhere that had fibre, of any sort, would have created fabric often with stripes, lines, and ultimately checks. Any woven cloth with a regular repeating series of threads of different colours in both the warp and weft would be considered as tartan. There are some examples of such cloth dating back over 3000 years found in Urumchi, China with other examples from findings in the historic Salt mines of Halstatt in Austria. These fabrics are remarkable survivors of a past age of very skilled weavers.

The first actual example of a tartan found in Britain is the Falkirk check, a very simple check in natural light and dark wools, dating to around 250AD. The most recently found example of an historic tartan from Glen Affric in the Highlands, has been confirmed to between 1500 -1600 is a very recognisable tartan design with multi pattern lines and 4 colours of dyed yarns. Scotland is generally the first place that tartan is identified with by most people and it has become the single most recognisable marker of the region.

In Scotland there is a well understood idea that different regions produced different tartan cloth, often from local dyestuffs, but the Highlands did have access to many imported raw materials from the mid 1500’s well before the craze for tartan happened. In 1815 the Highland Society of London asked the clan chiefs to submit samples of their clan tartans, but most really had no idea what their clan tartan was, but the enterprising weavers were only to happy to help and after 1822 King’s visit to Edinburgh the wearing of tartan took off, whilst once it was a Highland dress it became universally Scottish and weavers began to satisfy, indeed even create, the need for named or Clan tartans. One of the main weavers was William Wilson of Bannockburn who managed to almost create a taxonomy of tartan, and thanks to the wonderful archive left behind and still viewable that we know so much about the popularization of tartan.
It is from this period that many of the Clan/named tartans were created and recognised. Then the colours were choosen largely by artistic desire without any great attachment as to meaning, today tartans are still being created but now often with symbolic meanings for the colours or number of threads.
Tartan is still very much alive and well, and wherever the Scottish have migrated across the world there now exists a very strong support for this iconic cloth.

Much is said about the constraints imposed on tartans, but in truth it is a design, usually woven with a twill, but it’s not essential, mainly woven in wool, mostly in a worsted yarn, but again not essential.

Over the centuries tartan has been created in wool, silk, cotton, and linen, and now appears as a synecdoche for Scotland or Scottish culture whether it is on fabric, paper, or metal.

Examples of historical and tartan setts on wool and other substrates:


Tweed: Often a slightly rough woollen cloth made with mixed coloured yarn, seen as country type clothing for outdoor use associated with Scotland and Ireland particulary but woven in many places.
The origin seems to have been a miss reading of the Scots word tweel meaning twill by a London merchant around 1830, by tweed, but the word gained a huge currency and fame.

Woollen yarn: a lighty spun yarn produced from randomly arranged fibres, often plied for knitting, but when woven produces a lofty fabric which is warm yet light. Often uses a general purpose fleece with shorter fibres.

Worsted yarn: a fine strong yarn produced from parallel fibres from long wool fleeces, mainly for weaving and produces a harder and smoother fabric used for prestige or luxury items

Plain or Tabby weave: a traditional weave of alternate or in and out threads on the weft and warp, the simplest weaving technique.

Twill weave: a type of weave with a distinctive diagonal rib, a hard wearing fabric, typically for tartan but also a characteristic of denim. Created by the weft going over one warp thread and missing the next two or three, and then offsetting on the next pass continuing to create the strong diagonal lines.

Tartan or plaid

Often I am asked what is the difference between tartan and plaid, are they actually the same or what exactly are they? It’s quite a simple distinction, but can be rather involved depending on where you are in the world.

Tartan doesn’t have an absolute agreed definition but perhaps is best described as a pattern where there is a regular repeating arrangement of lines of colour at right angles creating a grid like design. Most of the time this refers to a woven cloth where the weft and the warp lines have the same formula, this is known as the thread count, and the repeating unit or square is called the sett. This grid like pattern often repeats as a mirror image giving a typical symmetrical and fairly usual tartan pattern. A few tartans are not symmetrical where the design block repeats by simply moving across. There are also a few tartans where the weft and warp are not the same, this is a little unusual but does happen especially with the fairly recent range of Welsh tartans, and a few rather early or historic tartans, perhaps by accident rather than plan!

It follows that even a simple 2 colour check conforms to this understanding although some feel that calling a simple check a “tartan” is a little excessive but the Shepherd or Northumberland Tartan is exactly that and MacGregor/Rob Roy is again a very simple 2 colour even square check – in the United States the same tartan in a larger check in red and black is frequently known as Buffalo Plaid and seen on cotton Flannel shirts . It is unusual to have more than 6 colours, and the repeating unit is often between 5″ – 8″, but there are several notable exceptions to this, often as bravura pieces, two extremes are pictured!

No one is entirely sure where the word “tartan” came, there are several theories, but examples of tartan have been found in archaeological sites around the world, notably in the Taklamakan Desert, Northern China, dating from 3000 years ago; well before Scotland had even been considered the birthplace of them and with little real basis for tartans there before the mid 1600’s.

Plaid is a Gaelic word meaning blanket, essentially a large wrap of cloth which in time became known as the Great kilt or Feileadh-mhor and then as the belted Plaid. This was made from 2 pieces of cloth roughly 4.5 yards long by about 28″ wide, joined together to create a large rectangle, this was wrapped around the wearer and became the standard garment, blanket, and sleeping bag.

The Great Kilt, a large wrap of tartan arranged for comfort and protection
The Great Kilt, a large wrap of tartan arranged for comfort and protection

It might well have been the most important item in the possession of a Highlander .The cloth was a simple woollen cloth woven by local weavers in colours of their choice, or whatever was available, doubtless it was mixed colours both of fleece and dye and over time, perhaps hundreds of years, local areas began to be known by what their weaver could produce and the origin of district or area tartans.
When Highlanders and Scots crossed the Atlantic to find new land and opportunities for various reasons, the word plaid was often misunderstood to mean the pattern of the blanket rather than the garment itself, and this is the root of the confusion.

In the UK the word plaid only normally means a large scarf or wrap usually worn by Pipers or traditional kilt wearers on special occasions, as a nod to the old fashioned or historic kilt attire. There are a few variations as well but often worn over one shoulder , either on the diagonal or perhaps folded square, and often it proves a valuable extra layer in the cold.

In the US the word plaid usually means any sort of checked cloth, in any arrangement of lines or colours and the “tartan” word seems to be reserved for named, registered, or official tartans which conform to a regular repeating unit. There also seems to be quality difference that tartan is somehow “better” than plaid, and tartan is almost always wool and plaid can be anything from flannel cotton to quality merino wool.

So in essence a plaid is a garment and tartan is the cloth in the UK, and plaid a miscellaneous checked cloth and tartan is a regular repeat in the States, although Pipers still wear “a” plaid there!

Harpenden Highland Gathering 2019

a few shots from 2019

I think I found out about this Scottish event some 11 years ago, remarking at the time that a “Scottish Gathering” in the wilds of Harpenden, near St Albans was rather unusual, but it seems to be fairly well established going back many years. I went simply as an onlooker for a few years but decided that I would take my tent and test out the waters to see how much interest there might be in having a kiltmaker around. The event usually has 5 -7 pipebands, a Scottish sports arena with cabers, hammers, weights, and haybales, often some dogs, geese, ferrets, and/or birds of prey. Lots of childrens’ entertainments, climbing walls, Scottish Dancing and Piping competitions, and a large selections of charity stalls, often a classic car collection and a good selection of military cadets who help enormously with the set up and tidy up at the end, so all in all a good family day out.
Very few visitors are kilted, but it is definitely an all age event.

It certainly proved worthwhile to take a pitch as I got 7 orders for kilts in the first year, so almost an embarrassment of riches, although that hasn’t been repeated over the last 7 years, sadly!
I think I have almost become a fixture at the event now as I’m the only kiltmaker and although I still get some orders a lot of my time is spent answering enquiries about which tartan/clan to wear. It is this task which has got me thinking about whether or no it is really worth my while to attend.
There have been the sensible to weird requests……such as my grandmother came from Scotland what tartan should I wear ( with no further information, not even name ) …. to “how dare you wear the Black Watch, it is private…. to the you are wearing the kilt wrongly – it needs to cover your knees, (I’m a kiltmaker I try and get it right!) …. Sometimes an identification from a fuzzy phone picture makes the owner incredibly happy and me as well! A recent one was , 2 years ago someone picked a tartan he liked, could I tell him what was it? I’m happy to report that I did vaguely remember and managed to dredge the little grey cells, finding a sample of it and getting an order for a new kilt, so it’s worth being patient!

The pitch fee is fairly small and I usually cover that with a few sales of hose and accessories, and often I get a few kilt orders, but it takes a whole day for two or three of us to man the tent, and I need a few days in advance to gather everything together, and an early start in the morning to get there. It’s not a straightforward decision as to whether to continue, most of the time I work on my own and it is a quiet and solitary occupation sewing kilts , so it is lovely to have exchanges with lots of people over a day. The comments are usually good natured, funny and friendly, some are deeply curious and meaningful and genuinely want more information, some actually are quite rude, aggressive and even accusatory. On balance it has always been enjoyable even if very tiring and I admit to liking being public, at least for a short time.

I’m fairly sure that I’ll book again for next year, not so much with the expectation of great sales, but with the idea that outreach is a good thing, and without being too excessive, the idea that showing tartan and kilts is a good thing. Purchasing a kilt is a large expense for most people and it takes time to be certain, so a year later on return visits clients are a little more secure in what they are after, perhaps it’s also reassuring for the customer that I am still around.
It’s a day out in the country away from the sewing room, and that is a very welcome change of scenery. I’m happy and able to do it, so in a very small way I helping keeping a little bit of Scottishness alive in the South of England!

At the start of the day, before the hoards arrived.

A Trade show visit – good and bad…

From time to time I visit trade shows, sometimes it’s all British companies , sometimes Worldwide, but with either there are only ever a few stands, mainly weavers, that grab my attention. Today I went to a show in London – Make it British, , and there were a couple of companies I wanted to have a look at their new ranges, but it was also an excuse to have a trip up to London and away from the sewing table for a few hours.

Almost immediately I saw one of my favourite weavers – Marton Mills and I had a great time meeting and chatting to one of the sales staff who I had never seen before but had placed many orders with her over the telephone. I know that I’m not a particularly large consumer, but there was no feeling at all of being the little guy, she was charming and friendly and suggested a few things that might be of interest, which will be followed up over the next few weeks. This meeting on it’s own would have made the whole trip worthwhile, thank you Rochelle.

Walking around the stands , stopping from time to time and having nice friendly chats and even a little banter – would I like to make a kilt out of quilted cotton from Bolton, and one stand recognised that the cloth of the jacket ( ) I was wearing was woven by them – and would I like to sit on the stand and advertise it for them, all good humour and very pleasant as well.

The reason, I suppose for even mentioning the trade show, it is after all hardly earth shattering for most people outside the trade world, was the response from another stand, which surprised and even bothered me a little.

I make kilts out of Harris tweed, a rather special cloth with a great history, it’s fairly heavy and a little bit casual and outdoor, but it’s great to work with, and the end product has a very unique look. It’s a little expensive, and is only woven in the homes or garages of weavers on the Hebrides which makes it rather exclusive. I deal with a few weavers and an independent outlet on the Island. The whole concern is coordinated by another and larger body which helps to supply the yarns – dyeing and spinning , some of the orders, finishing of the cloth and generally navigates the business side of things, so a very important part of the whole enterprise. To be met with a rather superior attitude, indeed a rather patronising one is never going to engender a happy response from me.
I’ve been working with Harris tweed for over 20 years, even through some rather rough times for them on the Island and am very familiar with the manufacturing processes, indeed when I mentioned that I spun as well the reply was one simply delivered with a sneer that their spinners were so much bigger than mine. Perhaps they were trying to be amusing, but they failed in a rather monumental way, and it wasn’t the only dispiriting reply.
For an organisation that seeks to represent the wider face of Harris tweed they really were doing a very poor job, however it won’t stop me using the cloth, frankly my buying power is very small but I do have a list of several different weavers who will happily sell directly and I’d like to think that they will benefit a little more directly .

So it was definitely a show of different approaches, a very worthwhile event in many ways, and I’m glad I visited. It did show very much how different sales staff approaches dramatically change a customers feeling towards a company, and how a simple friendly face can make a huge difference.

Colours of tartan

There are thousands and thousands of different tartans, ranging from well known old clan, family, and district ones, to corporate, club, and commercial ones, to light hearted and fun ones; in fact there are probably tartans for just about any and everything these days, and the list is constantly growing. To identify a mystery tartan can be somewhat challenging but what has made it even more difficult is the added complication that many of these existing recorded tartans can be woven in a range of different colour palettes.

These colourways do not actually change the name of the tartan as the threadcount – the actual formula for the pattern – remains unchanged .

This threadcount sets out the number of each coloured thread in sequence, this list forms the basis of the sett when woven, making the recognised tartan grid and squares. Each colour has been given a code letter to make it read, so that B = blue , Y = yellow , R = red , G = green , K for black , W = white N = neutral/grey , there are others but these are the main ones. The difficulty comes when you choose a colour, there is no absolute tone/shade/hue for any one them, so that the weaver can choose whichever one they like, and this then leads to the added numbers of available options from even a simple tartan.

Early woven tartans often used local plants to dye the wool and the local weaver would produce cloth that would have become recognised as local cloth, it didn’t take long with trading to increase the available colours and there is evidence of many imported dyestuffs such as madder or indigo being used in Scotland from the 1400’s. The weaving of tartan before the 1600’s was more or less a simple village activity fulfilling the need for cloth, but as the population expanded a need for greater stocks of cloth increased and weaving began to turn into a more organised affair. One business which played a hugely important part in the widespread creation of tartan was William Wilson of Bannockburn – a town which was well known for tartan weaving. They were well established by the end of 1800’s and probably had been weaving for a considerable time before. They managed to create incredible quantities of tartans and it seems that they were very influential in the naming and classification of tartans. They were of course in business to sell cloth and it’s clear that on many occasions they weren’t above creating or renaming existing tartans to sell some extra yardage. They kept good records of the colours and threadcounts for many tartans and it is thanks to them that we know of and can duplicate many 200 year tartans. Their colour palette is now known as Wilson’s colours although rarely used these days except for special orders. People are often surprised that all these tartans were dyed with natural dyes and are amazed at how strong and bold they are.

Wilson’s colours in modern production

This palette was used as the basis for the most common tartan colourway in production today known as Modern. This range is now produced from aniline dyes, first discovered in 1856 which very swiftly left the natural dyes far behind. Aniline colours were much cheaper, easier to work with and much more repeatable so they replaced a lot of the slightly archaic dyeing methods and lead to a much more consistent product. Each weaver today has a slightly different version of the modern colours, but they all have strong blues and greens and a good bright red and yellow , they appear bold and striking

A typical range of Modern colours from different weavers

The next available colourway is known as Ancient,  this colourway was created sometime around the 1930’s in an attempt to increase sales and is characterised by softer blues and greens, slightly orange reds, the overall feel is of an older cloth, which often creates confusion as it’s actually newer than the modern colours!

A typical range of Ancient colours from different weavers

Around the same time other colourways were proposed, one called Reproduction  ( largely browns and greys) was created after an idea to copy some of the recently found archaeological fabric findings on Culloden Moor, and soon after other weavers such as Lochcarron created the Weathered  ( largely grey toned ) range, and House of Edgar created the Muted ( slightly faded colours) version. Each of these are readily available and have been copied by many others

There are other variations in colourways as well, Dress tartan is characterised by using a lot of white in the design, often in the larger areas of the background, the idea was certainly known of and is seen in womans arisaids/shawls, but became much more of a Victorian theme and was often used for posh events largely by gentlemen who could show off that they didn’t have to worry about having white clothing, although today it is largely seen as more normal for ladies attire. A development of this lead to the dancing tartans which have a white base colour and often very bright colours, although seldom seen outside the world of Highland dancing.There a few “dress” tartans that don’t contain extra white but they are very rare.

Dress tartans

Hunting tartans fall into a slightly confusing category as well, some tartans are re-coloured with more blues and greens, again a (mistaken) Victorian idea that it would give camouflage on the hills and moors, but also some Clan hunting tartans have an entirely different sett/design that doesn’t bear any resemblance to the typical sett.

A final thought about the colourways of tartans, it is often better to use the modern/ancient/muted etc after the tartan name, so for example Buchannan ancient, rather than ancient Buchannan, as there is already an Old Buchannan tartan, which could in theory be produced in any colourway desired, so you could have Old Buchannan modern if you wished.

Most Clans have only one known tartan which would be the most usual and stocked one, but often the Chief or main family might have a variation of it with perhaps an added stripe of colour, and of course sometimes a celebration version might be produced, but these extra setts wouldn’t normally be available for the general public.

An added complication is that more recently anyone can submit a new design to be registered, and while it might not be possible for it to be called the “clan” name, it can often contain a variation of it which can’t help but add to the problems with taxonomy, these recent ones are often called fashion or personal

No one said the study of colour and tartans was straightforward.

Woollen or Worsted

Most people think that yarn made from wool is woollen, and in a general sense that’s not wrong, but for those of a fibre or textile persuasion it’s a lot more complicated than that, and this is just one aspect of the many things in the magical and wondrous world of wool, more will follow!

To go back to very beginning most sheep produce usable wool in some way or another, there are hundreds and hundreds of different breeds of sheep and the colour, the quality, and quantity of wool produced is very varied.

Man first started using whatever wool the sheep provided , but it wasn’t long before  a gentle process of selective breeding came into play to provide the best wool or indeed the best meat, it wasn’t always possible to get both at the same time.The many breeds of sheep  give varying lengths of fibre,  many sheep give fibres between 2″ -4″ which is an excellent basic wool but the most highly prized is the  longwool bearing  sheep  which can give fibre of up to 12″ or perhaps even more.
It is possible to spin directly from the fleece, but most spinners will clean or prepare the wool in some way to make the next process a little easier.

General purpose wool for general purpose use is most likely to be carded after cleaning, producing a random mix of shortish and longish fibres, usually jumbled together loosely, what hand spinners call rolags. This uses almost all the available fibre with very little waste  and is ideal for spinning yarn that is going to be used  for knitting. There are different ways of spinning woollen yarn but handspinners use rolags, a loose sausage like roll of fibre, often some version of a longdraw method is used, this produces an open, soft and fluffy yarn, not always the strongest but excellent in making things for warmth. This type of yarn is called Woollen (  often woolen in the United States).

 hand carded wool using  southdown wool, with rolags behind the cards

Long wool fibres can not be easily carded, they are simply too long and get caught up on the drum, so are combed instead using long spiked boards which separate the long and shorter fibres. The long ones are kept, shorter ones put aside and can be  carded to produce a woollen type yarn, and spun into yarn using a shortdraw technique which produces a finer, harder and more even yarn  which took the name of a village in Norfolk ( apart from a curious spelling change)  Worsted. This method of spinning is a little slower, but the higher price obtained more than offset the difficulty.

English worsted spun yarn was highly sought after and helped to create the importance of the wool industry in England in the 12th century

Combed fibres  using a lincoln longwool

This is only a very quick view of the differences and there is a huge  range between woollen and worsted yarns, infact many hand spinners  produce something in between. Purists will always want the Worsted yarn to be very specially prepared with cut ends always in the same position, but this is seldom possible in practise in commercial preparation, so the word semi-worsted abounds in spinning parlance.

Woollen yarns are  ideal for knitting, the yarn is very open and will help to make cosy and warm fabrics, often by knitting, but could be used in weaving loftier cloth such as tweed. All the fibres are all used so the yarn isn’t completely smooth, fine, or strong but it is a very economic use of wool as  almost all the fibre is used.

Worsted yarns are ideal for weaving,  the yarn is thin and strong and makes excellent cloth for suiting and fine goods, it is more expensive as only the best/long fibres are selected so  generally thought of a prestige product.

Here is an easy to understand ( hopefully) photo of examples of both commercial and hand spun woollen and worsted yarns,
The Harris tweed ones are typical in their mixed colours,fairly thickly spun but they pull apart with ease pictured alongside some jacob fibre – spun from a rolag with a long draw, similar weight, both fairly typical of a general purpose yarn.
The Lochcarron tartan ones – a leading tartan weaver – are very finely machine spun with a hard twist and can be separated with patience alongside the jacob – spun from a combed preparation with a short draw, actually a little bit finer that the Lochcarron, but much slower to spin than the woollen one, another reason for the extra price of a worsted yarn


Madder is one of those incredibly historic dyes that shows up in samples from many archaeological digs all over the world in some form or other,  from Peru in  South America  to Cairo in Egypt to Gujarat in India. It’s often thought to be one of the oldest plant dyes known

Rubia tinctorium and Rubia cordifolia  are the usual botanical names but various species are known by lots of different names, and  they are related to plants such as Lady’s Bedstraw and Cleavers which contain the same colourings although in a much lesser quantity.

Madder leaves

I’ve been fascinated to learn more about this precious resource and find out more about the range of colours/shades/tones that can be produced from this rather uninspiring creeping plant, or at least its roots

Freshly dug roots

It takes about three years for the roots to grow to a good size and are harvested carefully, they break easily and each small piece is capable or growing again, so it is considered a bit of a weed in many places although perhaps in agricultural terms a boon.
The leaves and stalks are full of tiny prickles and can cause allergic reactions in some people. Uprooting can happen at almost anytime, but early autumn is popular as the leaves die back and allow easier access to the roots.

The fine roots are left to dry a few days, then the soil is brushed off and then the roots are washed to remove as much remaining debris as possible

I’ve found it best to cut the roots into small pieces at this stage as when properly dry they become very hard. Madder  has a tendency to go mouldy quite easily so the  root pieces should be dried  as soon as possible, in the sun would be ideal, but in a very low temperature fan oven works very well, turning the pieces often, and when cool stored in a jar where they should keep many years. There is  an understanding that  well aged madder gives better reds, but I’ve obtained great colours from fairly fresh harvests

But now it’s time to dye, Madder contains a range of active ingredients but the chief one is alizarin and can with careful dyeing produce colours from pale pinks and peaches through tans and oranges to tomato reds and bright reds to almost dark maroons and grey purples.
It can be very temperamental to work with  with many factors affecting the colour responses, for example , pH values  – acid to alkali,  to heating for too long or too high,  for hard or soft water, for short or long soaking, for fast work or long slow fermentation. That is part of the frustration but also the magic with many natural dyes, I suspect the charm is in the challenge for the dyer, certainly for me.

I’ve worked with madder on wool in lots of different ways, but a usual ( and almost guaranteed to get some good colours) method  follows.

The wool should be mordanted first using about 15% – 20% potash alum to weight of dry fibre  this is a little higher than for usual mordanting, but the madder needs it to get a full depth of colour. Dissolve the alum in some hot water, add to the pot with plenty of extra water, add the scoured  and skeined yarn and simmer gently for about an hour or so, leave to cool in the pot overnight, I’ve found that removing the skein and allowing it to dry for a few days, or weeks if possible works well, but remember to rinse and soak the skein before any dyeing.
Use about 150% dried root to dry weight of yarn and about  5% Calcium carbonate, madder appreciates hard water.
Soak the wool in clean water for a least an hour or overnight is ideal
Scald the madder roots  and let sit a minute, drain the liquid, and repeat.This liquid will be quite orange, it can be used  to make peaches and light colours, but it is worthwhile to remove the “orange”  dye if you are trying to get  a “redder” colour range. 
This stage isn’t essential but it does seem to speed up the dyeing process.
Put the roots in a large pan with the calcium carbonate and plenty of water, heat very gently for about 30  mins and  the colour will start to bleed out. I add the yarn at this stage, but some prefer to strain the roots off, put them in a net and then replace in the pan, but I find that the pieces of root  don’t tend to stick to the yarn and are easily removed at the end of the dyeing.
Allow to  stay warm for a few hours, very gentle heat is better, but don’t let it get above a simmer and below is ideal. Higher temperatures kill the red and  give browns, perfectly good colours but not the sought after madder oranges and reds.
  I let the yarn sit in the pot overnight, making sure that it is well covered with extra water if needed.
Check the colour next day, if  not deep enough  you can warm for another 3 – 5 hours, this can be repeated for many days and the colour will gradually increase. It is also possible just to let the pot sit for a few weeks without heat , to allow the madder to ferment, this is a good way to get decent reds in a very economic way.
If the yarn still has an orange tint you can rinse the skein in a low alkali solution – I use ammonia or washing soda, but be careful to limit this as it will begin to breakdown the wool if exposed to a strong  solution or for too long, and always make sure it will well rinsed. If things go to plan you should see a gentle change of tone to a cleaner red and less yellow colour.
Conversely  if you give the skein an acid rinse  – vinegar to citric acid – more yellow will show.
You can put the  skein back in the dye pot for deeper colours if wished.
Allow the skein to dry overnight or longer, without rinsing , this seems to help the madder to set properly on the fibres.

This is a  good basic way of dyeing with madder , but there are lots of variations possible and every dyer has their own pet methods.

A few key things to remember, madder doesn’t like to get too hot, it prefers a slightly alkali environment and  it’s quite happy to  sit for a long time, in fact one of the best reds I’ve got was from a skein that  I had forgotten in a dye pot for about 4 weeks, and some people even work with cold madder dyeing over a month or so with excellent results.

fermented madder skein

Other things to note, the smaller the madder is ground the faster the  colouring, I’ve used finely ground or  finely chopped orcomplete roots with satisfactory results, but I find the ground dust is a little harder to wash out.
There are different grades of madder, usually from different parts to the world, some of my most reliable results have been  from Iranian madder pieces, but  my recent tests from London grown madder in school playgrounds has restored my faith in local fresh sources as well.

Modifying rinses is a great way of adjusting tones or tints of madder dyed fibre.
A short soak in an iron rich bath will sadden the original colour making it greyer or duller, with an additional alkali rinse madder colours can turn towards the purples.
Alkalis will make colours cleaner and often accentuate  any red
Acids will tend to warm up colours to a lighter or more golden hue.
Tannins will tend to make thing browner and in the presence of iron  grey to black shades are possible.

With any dyeing it is possible to redye , or to dye several times to enhance or enrich the colour, madder  works well this way, sometimes there is no need to re mordant, but another few days in a fresh dye bath can work well

Madder is a wonderful resource and worth taking time to investigate the incredible range of colours possible, for me wool offers the greatest range, but silk, linen, and cotton is worth a look as well. Cotton with madder needed a curious and very long dyeing process with perhaps over 25 different and subsequent stages, including oil, blood and dung to make the famous Turkey red much loved in India, I’m prepared to give that a miss, for the moment at least.

Local colours from local plants

Following on from an earlier post about collecting local plants and making dyes with them  for a Heritage Open Day, I’ve finished and created a show board

The finished hanging board

The list of plants used, I chose them because they could have been around 1000 years ago, there were dozens of others, but I have left them in the ground for another time

Birchbark‎Betula pendula
HawthornfruitCrataegus monogyna
HawthornbarkCrataegus monogyna
Queen Annes LaceflowerDaucus carota
AshkeyFraxinus excelsior
Ivy leavesleavesHedera Helix
Lichen and twigswholeLichen
SloefruitPrunus spinosa
Bracken brownleavesPteridium
Dock brownseedsRumex
Dock greenseedsRumex
ComfreyleavesSymphytum officinale
NettleleavesUrtica dioica

The blurb for the show board 

Wool comes in almost white, almost black, and a light brown, or combinations of, although they can be blended and mixed the colour range is very plain but with careful planing and design there are many permutations . Doubtless by chance the first stains and dyes were discovered which might have been nothing more than coloured earths, but it wasn’t long before leaves, flowers, and barks were used to create a great range of extra colours.

Northern Europe doesn’t have a climate suitable for many of the plants of the tropics,but even with the cooler climes a very worthwhile range of shades and colours were found and used.

I’ve chosen to work with some local plants within a small area roughly centred on St. Johns and extending to the Hogsmill river, selecting ones that are native and would have been known a thousand years ago, and could well have been used to colour local wool. The wool sadly isn’t local but a Shetland wool, and of a type which would have been known then , spun thinly and plyed to make a fine yarn suitable for weaving.

Some of the wool was mordanted with “Alum”, a salt which helps dye colours bind to the fibres leading to better longevity and fastness but it’s not needed for every colour. Modifiers were also used which alter the shade or tone of the colour. One modifier was simply an iron cauldron, the iron acting to sadden the colour, generally making it greyer, although only a small amount is needed as too much can lead to degradation of the wool. The other modifier I used was ammonia, this enhances the warmer colours, traditionally, aged urine was used but I chose to use household cleaning grade instead.

This means that for every plant there are at least three possible colour variations. I’ve been careful about trying to use materials and methods which would have been familiar to a Mediaeval dyer whose sheep could even have been recorded in the Domesday book.

And I must add the watercolour painting that I first saw last year  in the display at the Church which gave me the idea of the dyeing project, just  and because  I noticed the sheep!

St Johns Church dated somewhere between 1847 and 1867, before the Victorian addition

Avocado dyeing

A year ago I saw some references to  avocados  giving a delicate pink colour without the use of any additional mordants, relying on the tannin  contained within the stone or skins, I was fascinated and  shortly gave it a test. There were several methods advocated , generally long soaks in water and ammonia mixes  perhaps for several months, or long simmering at low temperatures. I tried a few tests and was  a bit disappointed with the results, pale pinks but nothing that I thought I couldn’t have got with a little bit of exhaust cochineal, so the idea of using avocados didn’t last.

Fast forward about 9 months and I found an old large jar filled with avocado bits and  rather dark red liquid, so certainly worth  using with some yarn. I  made two small skeins of shetland wool, one alum mordanted and the other untreated, soaked them and pushed them into the jar making sure they were well covered and left them overnight, and indeed for a few days. The liquid didn’t feel soapy so I didn’t think there was much alkali left, but I didn’t check the pH.

By chance it was tricolore salad for supper, so I saved the skins and pits , washed to remove any flesh, smashed the pits, let them dry and the next day very slowly simmered them for about 8 hours or so, topping up with water as needed, and pleased to see a very strong colour appearing, almost as much as the 9 month jar.

Another day passed and  tests in the simmered dye bath proved positive for a good strong colour, and when put alongside the fermented bath showed a lot of similarities on the un mordanted skein , but the alum one was a much stronger colour  – not so much pink as a light brick red ( on the right of the picture)

With this revelation I decided it was certainly worth  using the  avocados for a little more research.