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, https://makeitbritish.co.uk/ , 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
https://martonmills.com 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 ( https://www.islemill.com/ ) 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.

What makes a tartan ?

There is often debate about what a tartan actually is, and how it differs from a check , and certainly in America there is usually a misunderstanding about plaids,  checks, and tartans. Of course there are grey areas but essentially there is nothing between different them. A tartan is often defined as a pattern or cloth that has multiple stripes of different colours which cross at right angles forming a grid or network of lines and squares. A tartan does not need to recognised or registered by any authority to be known as such, and although it is most easily achieved through weaving, doesn’t even have to be realised on cloth.

No one really knows exactly when weaving first began, certainly many thousands of years BC, in many different parts of the world, but  we can speculate that once the process was mastered it would have been fairly easy to vary the cloth by adding stripes of different wools or different colours, if this was done on the warp threads as well as the weft, then  a series of grids and squares would naturally appear. Some of the earliest examples of  repeating woven patterns come from the Tarim mummies  from central Asia, north of Tibet, dating from about 2000 BC, and these were so expertly done one must imagine that the skill of weaving was already well advanced.

At its simplest  you could have two colours with equal spacing and you have the  basic tartan pattern, seen  in many  places, but a well known tartan  one is the Rob Roy tartan. Known in America as the Buffalo plaid – said to have been created there by the   Woolrich Mill in central Pennsylvania around 1856  but the idea of a simple repeating unit started a very long time before that. Gingham , which has the same design  although usually smaller squares dates from the early 17th century in England. Going back much further one of the first checked or tartan fabrics found in the United Kingdom; the Falkirk tartan is a perfect example of fine weaving in just two colours, both undyed but a dark brown and a creamy white from different sheep.

Taking the idea of different coloured  stripes and repeating them  with different widths, broad and narrow a whole new range of possibilities opens up, even with just the two colours. With the crossing of the stripes a third colour, a 50% mix of both  original colours appears. This is an important part of any woven  design and sets it apart from other printed designs.

Adding a third colour and suddenly a whole realm of patterns is unlocked, with two colours the overlap creates a third, with three colours  there are six total  options and with four colours you the get ten possibilities  .

The idea that historically tartans were all named and represent families is  not true, the fabrics woven in Scotland were really produced from the local wools and dyes in each area and as the production of yarn and cloth was so labour intensive there would have been little choice other than to wear  the local fabric, which of course would most likely have been family or at least district based. The idea that local dyes were dull is mistaken, a wide range range of colours is possible even from a limited geographic area and there is  reasonable evidence that  additional dye colours were being imported from at least the early 1500’s which would have  given the weaver an almost complete range of colours to work with.

Pictures and photos will follow