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.