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.

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

illustrated talks

I was asked yesterday after I gave a talk at Kingston University, if I had a website listing of the different talks I do, the answer was no, so this will hopefully  rectify the omission .

I am happy to give talks to  groups in an informal setting, ranging from school rooms to church halls, from 20 to 50 adults.

Each event takes the form of an talk with lots of examples and samples, and I encourage the audience to ask questions and examine the items throughout the 45 mins – 60 mins. Each talk can be tailored to different groups, perhaps by focusing on a particular interest.

I only need a well light space and a couple of tables, I don’t normally have any need of computers or electrical equipment.

I have currently 5 talks available

1 From fleece to pleats

Fleece to pleats

An introduction to the word of wool, spinning, weaving,dyeing, tartan, and  kilt making.
I discuss the history of wool, demonstrate spinning, talk about the development of weaving and the history of tartan, finishing with a “show and tell” of how a kilt is made.

This talk  is an excellent overview of wool and tartan, covering a lot of ground very quickly, but it has proved to be one of my most popular bookings

2 Natural Dyeing

An introduction to the world of natural dyeing,  from early mud dyeing of 5000 BC right through to the discovery of the first synthetic dye in 1856.

With lots of samples of dyed wools, grouped by the history and development of colourants , and samples of many of the various dyestuffs and chemicals used,I discuss the history and manufacture of coloured textiles.

3 Bookbinding

An introduction to the history of books, from the beginnings on papyrus, through mediaeval bindings to mass produced paperbacks, I show examples of all the major styles. Discussion and handling of samples is important to the talk and everyone has the chance to handle wood, leather, paper and linen thread.
I also show a range of contemporary art bindings using glass,knitted cloth, ceramics, carved wood, and silk as cover materials.
I also offer a selection of bookbinding workshops, from simple pamphlets to multi section collections. These workshops can be tailored for all ages, young and old!  Contact me to discuss further details.  see below for a video produced for an earlier class, but it gives an idea of how a class can work.

4 Ceramics

A quick tour through the basics of pottery tracing the development of ceramics  from hand pinched pots to industrial mass-produced dinner services.

Using historic and contemporary examples there is ample opportunity for discussion of different styles and types from around the world, with an emphasis on decorative techniques.

5.Flax and Linen

A brief history of flax and how it gets converted into linen yarn and cloth. Using samples of the plant, fibre, and finished products, a few personal stories  of teaching school children how to spin it, and  some family memories of work in the mills . I also explain why flax and linen deserve much more attention today in  environmentally  sensitive ways over other fibres.

6 All about fibres

A talk on many of the main sources of fibre – wool, flax, silk, and cotton, along with some more unusual but otherwise well used fibres from around the world. Lots of samples and demonstrations of preparation and spinning. Many stories of the history and background of the fibres and yarns and what they are used for – including some folk tales as well.

A selection of little balls of different fibres