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.

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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.

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 1950’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, this is very much a Victorian idea and was 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.

Dress tartans

Hunting tartans fall into a slightly confusing category as well, some tartans are recoloured 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.
No one said the study of colour and tartans was straightforward.

Tartan edges

Working almost everyday with woven cloth makes you very aware of the type of edge  that you have, ideally making kilts you want to have a finished edge at the bottom of the kilt, but one that isn’t actually hemmed. The  traditional shuttle weaving produced a selvedge ( self-edge),  a term that is widely and also a  little inaccurately used today. A selvedge  by actual definition is the  clean edge formed when the shuttle on the loom goes back and forwards with a continuous and unbroken thread ; this method when carefully managed produces a beautifully pure edge with no added weight of change of feel, it is the most desired edge for kiltmakers.

a traditional kilt selvedge

Of course it isn’t always quite that simple, over the years kilting cloth has been produced on different types of looms and most weavers today use high speed looms which no longer can make a true selvedge. These looms can weave in a few hours what a traditional hand weaver  would have woven in a week or more.  With the change of loom there has been a change of fabric edge.

 

 

a tuck edge

The most usual one for kilts is now called a tuck edge where  one thread is woven at a time and then folded back upon itself for about  a cm and then the next thread  is introduced and forms the next line of cloth,  working with a single length  of thread is very much faster and looms use a variety of high speed methods for shooting the thread across including compressed air  or even water, but the key thing is that a shuttle is no longer needed. This edge is slightly firmer and often a little more stable, but it has a little line of  cut threads about 1 cm from the actual edge, these are not terribly noticeable depending on which side of the cloth is used. Most tartan weavers now use this edge for the majority of their production.

 

leno edge with fringe

Another edge that is sometimes seen is a leno edge, which has a distinctive extra few twisted threads often  white at the edge and a fringe from the uncut weft threads,this is the possibly the faster weaving method but it does mean that any kilt fabric will have to be hemmed. One excellent Scottish weaver has worked out how to have a selvedge  on one side and a leno on the other, they use this on single width tartan and this means that a kiltmaker still has the  chance to use a good edge at the bottom of the kilt, and the leno edge is cut off and used for the waistband, and hidden from view.

 

 

 

While a selvedge is the favourite  it is not always the easiest to produce these days and is now more expensive with only a few weavers offering this. When it is well done it is excellent, but some weavers try  it and fail miserably, this is an example of a rushed and imperfect selvedge, however with a lot of ironing, steam and pulling and stretching it can be made a little better, and if it wasn’t for a special order it would have been returned, a kiltmaker has enough to do without trying to fix  a weaving problem. Often I’d rather have a tuck edge than having to spend time remedying a weaver’s  problems.

a rather poor and imperfect selvedge

Watching a weaver work is a wonderful experience, seeing the magic work of converting a mass of threads into a cloth is fascinating. Traditional looms for weaving tartan  haven’t changed very much in hundreds of years,  a strong wooden box like construction , but actually very simple, relying on the skill of the weaver and a flying shuttle ,it was the only way of producing any from of tartan until the beginning of the 19th century.

Mechanisation happened and the introduction of power looms  made the mass production of tartan possible, dobby looms which followed around the 1850’s  revolutionised the speed  of weaving and the possibility of more complex designs.

It also meant that some weaving could be done at home or outbuildings which is largely how the Harris tweed industry came about, with a benevolent investor many looms were bought and  the local community began to change what was already a low level cottage  occupation into a world wide industry. The looms most associated with Harris tweed are the Hattersley single width looms  many of which are still working nearly one hundred years later. They are wonderful work horses   excellent for the substantial tweeds. These looms do produce a selvedge  but realistically with the heavy yarn it’s not  often usable without a hem for kilts. One edge will be smoothish and the other will have all the carried threads, but as  the tweed is generally for pattern based clothing this presents no problems

traditional Harris tartan tweed with a loopy edge

One last little nugget; occasionally  I see a thread that has been attached to a length of cloth this tells me that there is a fault of some sort, the thread is always at the edge ( this time a tuck edge)  and the flaw will be roughly in line with it, when the cloth is rolled up it is easy to see how many threads to judge what sort of quality to expect, this is supposed to be the origin of the phrase “no strings attached” meaning that the cloth was good quality and that no extra work was needed to  put it right!

definitely a case of strings attached

Kilt alterations

It seems to go with the job of a kiltmaker that they end up doing alterations, to be fair I don’t mind very much, but it’s seldom straightforward as you never really know what to expect once you start to open up the lining and look inside. Perhaps that challenge is exactly what makes me still do them, but I know some makers who will only adjust or alter their own kilts.
There isn’t a single way to make a kilt, and as they are usually expensive items many makers try and find short cuts. Some of these  seem reasonable, like a little extra machine sewing to save time over hand sewing, but I do draw the line at iron-on interfacing instead of pad stitched hair canvas. This, time heavy tailoring process,however is one of main shortcuts that one  of the largest commercial kilt maker uses. In fact they are the supplier to various British Army regiments, so it must work, although I suspect cost cutting is not only on the mind of those kiltmakers but also in the mind of the Quartermasters. A few years ago it was rumoured that all kilt making was going to be out sourced to the subcontinent, because of an economy drive that was stopped because of a public outcry, but I do wonder if the kilts would have looked  or been constructed any differently.

The most frequent alteration I am asked to do is so try and  make the kilt a little larger, in time most  gentlemen’s waists get a little bigger, and despite the kilt having an adjustment range of plus/minus 4″ it’s often not enough. Moving buckles and straps works for an an extra 2″ , but any more than that means that some extra  unpicking and sewing is needed. Most simple buckle moving can be completed within a few hours, so almost while you wait.

The kilt on the table at the moment is quite the reverse, it was sized at about  a 52″ waist and needs to be reduced to about a 44″, this is a rather major job. For the client the loss of weight is certainly a good thing, but for a kilt maker it adds may challenges. The main issue was that the front apron overlapped the pleats at the side by more than 6″ , catching on them and proving to be very annoying, and the fact that it just didn’t feel right.Obviously the  buckles and straps were in the wrong place as well, and the kilt was no longer centred.

To solve the problem the kilt had to be largely disassembled and put back again with fewer pleats. The waistband was removed, 4 pleats on either side were unpicked and then the excess fabric cut out, and the newly exposed edges sewn back together again. Doing it this way meant I didn’t have to resew all the pleats, and as the inside of the pleats had been cut out already I couldn’t have just unpicked the whole thing successfully.

There was no original stabiliser and precious little canvas, so all new support materials were needed.

After that the aprons were reduced by a few inches as well so  a new fringe was created , I  added a triple instead of the existing double, then the waistband was sewn back on, and  original buckles   but new tabs and leather were sewn on in the new spots All  the kilt needed a very thorough steam press to remove the previous fold and crease lines, although some bits were pressed at several stages during the remaking.

There was a  lot of slightly crude stitching as well, for example on the bottom edge,

which I removed and replaced with something a little more subtle!

The lining was beyond   re-use, so I’ll get some more plain black cotton over the next few days, once that is done and a complete repress, hopefully it will be as good as new, and  once again in a fitting condition.

finished alterations, 8 pleats fewer, buckles repositioned properly

Altering a kilt is something that takes time and effort, depending on the changes needed costs do mount up, a simple buckle position change means that the kilt can be worn again and is given a whole new lease of life, major changes need to be more carefully considered, as the work gets close to  completely sewing a kilt from scratch, with the exception that sometimes the actual tartan was a special weave or difficult to get hold of so the decision is much easier to make.

sensitivity on kilt attire

A post on facebook caused quite a lot of comments over the last few days and it been been occupying my thoughts far too much, it’s best that I don’t give  all the details, but it was all about fashion and style and how a kilt is worn, or more precisely how some people thought a kilt should be worn.

The original poster, who is very proud of his outfit as he had a hand in designing it, frequently posts photographs of himself in various guises –   sometimes more formal and sometimes more casual – but largely it’s the same kilt with different accessories. Nothing wrong with that so far, but the photo in question raised the ire of a few people who decided that they knew best. Various comments were made about colour combinations, which while perhaps fair as an opinion were made fairly bluntly, and the kilt wearer took them to heart. As a kilt wearer myself ,I know to expect comments wherever I go, usually favourable but not always and I know that either I try to deal with them in an  unemotional way, or simply ignore them and move on. Social media is a little different, many people feel a freedom to say things that I doubt very much  they would in person, and unless you are prepared for that, feelings will get hurt, which is exactly what happened. The kilt wearer answered some of the comments in a similarly blunt way and of course things escalated. He left in high dudgeon, deleted the thread, left the group ( he had only become an admin a few days before) and then proceeded in other groups to tell his woes.

I’ve been a member of the original group for sometime, and there are so many unbelievable comments or statements  about Scotland, tartan, or kilts that it is almost laughable, and those views are incredibly strongly held, and immovable, if any attempt is made to try as discuss those thoughts the thread disintegrates very quickly. Things like:  I’ve traced my family tree to  – William Wallace, or Robert the Bruce, or Rabbie Burns, any of which is rather difficult to do, read impossible in truth really, but people do believe the strangest things sometimes. To be fair it’s not all  posters in the States, who often have a rather rosy idea of their history, but there are all some very strongly  minded people in Scotland as well, so the fault lies with both.

Sometimes I long for a reasoned discussion, often forgetting I’m looking in the wrong place.

But back to the original photograph, I have to say that I’m not so keen on the outfit in question, it’s all a bit much, and the colour combinations don’t work for me, I’m not usually afraid of strong colours or bold combinations, but it this case it didn’t quite work. I’d never have said anything as it’s his kilt,and his choice, and entirely up to him what he chooses. I do think though that if you put up a photograph of yourself in a bold look, you can expect a certain degree of negativity as well, and if you don’t you are being a bit naive really. I’m sure we have all posted things we were especially  pleased with, just to feel deflated with some discouraging comment. So it’s up to all of us to be strong  within ourselves and not to allow ourselves to be hurt too much, easy to say of course , but I don’t think we can expect, when people on social media are able to post their opinions so openly and directly, that people will necessarily be kind and supportive all the time. Leaving one group and then complaining on another one of the earlier bad treatment isn’t a very helpful solution either.
I  would have loved to have ventured an opinion, but I’ve known this poster for many years and I know how sensitive he is to any form of critique, although he is very forthright, and frequent, in  declaring his Scottish style, he doesn’t always easily accept reasonable  comments, which would be meant kindly, but it is hard to  hear a written post in the way it might have been said.

There are some posters who just seem to want to start a row, disagreeing with the smallest of details, I think we have to learn that whilst they have an opinion, it’s not widely shared and should be treated accordingly.

I suppose my thoughts are to whether when I post a photo I should expect nice or nasty responses, either way I should take  all of the comments with a pinch of salt, not to act in  haste, and just accept graciously that not everyone thinks the same as me, and certainly not to lose any sleep over them!