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.

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.

 

 

Local dyeing

St John’s Old Malden

For a local Heritage Day event, the sort that buildings are open to visitors to look around and explore, perhaps with a guide and with extra historical explanation, I decided that I would contribute to the local church’s one. Parts of it date back to Saxon times, but the bulk of it was  rebuilt around 1611, enlarged in Victorian times, and further enhanced  in early 2000’s. It is situated in a very pleasant churchyard with old graves and a few tombs, surrounded by meadows and fields. The grounds are carefully managed in a conservation way  with a good sprinkling of unusual and special native flowers and fauna. It sits just above the Hogsmill, a tributary of the Thames, it’s largest claim to fame is that it was the inspiration for “Ophelia” by Holman Hunt.

I had the idea that I would create a selection of dyed skeins of wool, showing the range of colours possible even within a small area. I decided that I would have three skeins of each, one as normally, and then the others modified, either with iron or with ammonia. These choices were historically correct, the iron “saddens” colours, making them greyer or darker, and the ammonia helps to make some colour brighter and changes other very dramatically but increasing the pH.Iron could have been introduced by dyeing in an iron pot, it takes very little to have an effect, and the ammonia could have been nothing more complicated than aged urine.

The iron  rinse was made by  keeping iron nails in a light vinegar solution for several months, cooking it up every so often, admittedly not  terribly scientific but it works, and the ammonia was simply a standard household cleaning product rather diluted.

There are lots of other modifiers around but I wanted to keep it fairly simple and reasonably possible for a simple basic dyer of  perhaps 500 years ago.

The first collection, but many more to go, these are mostly spring leaves, but the autumn leaves and twigs will be a little different

I’ve completed the final display board which can be seen here

Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms

Queen Anne’s Lace is everywhere around my neighbourhood at the moment I’ve often seen it mentioned in dye books, but until yesterday hadn’t done anything with the rather delicate flowers.
I’d been told they can give a good yellow, and  as it is easy to find, and free , it was worth a test or two

I picked about 20 or so  heads,  soaked them in boiling water overnight, and I also soaked some handspun 2 ply in a 15% Alum solution as well.

Each skein was simmered for  about 30 mins,  and then some were treated with modifiers, I was happily surprised to see how bright the yellow  was, and after a washing soda rinse  lost a little of the greenishness and became slightly more eggy. All told a successful morning, and I’ll be very happy to try it again.

There are a few names for Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota ,  part of the wild carrot family