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

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