I am, quite obviously, obsessed with tartan as a textile for its rich palette and perfect twill weave, But the deep ancestral history speaks to the Masters in the History of Decorative Arts diploma on my wall. The why and how makes the what all the more remarkable, no? So here is a tutorial on tartan. Tartan 101.  

What is Tartan?

The word tartan is thought to derive from the French tartarin (“Tartar cloth”) or the Scottish Gaelic tarsainn (“across”). Tartan is a pattern characterized by intersecting lines that are duplicated exactly vertically and horizontally (this is the crucial differentiating factor when comparing to plaid). Tartan is now used interchangeably as a pattern and a textile woven most often in wool and featuring its defining grid pattern known as a sett. The weave of tartan is a twill. And I love this video from one of our partner mills that features stringing the thread to cross at right angles. If this doesn’t make you appreciate this textile. Well, there may not be hope for you.  

The History of Tartan

Tartan has roots to the Anglo-Norman feudal system in Scotland during the 15th-17th centuries and was the result of territorial migration and invasion over hundreds of years: Britons from Wales, Picts from North, Scots (who invaded from Ireland) and Normans from England. Geographical districts were controlled by a chief, typically marked by a castle and is identified by a clan that is related to a foundering member, military leader or prominent family. Ah! Clan, derived from the Gaelic word clann meaning “children,” may evoke familial connotations but descendants of a particular clan are best described as neighbors not relatives. Individuals would adopt a clan name to identify with a specific district and its chief to survive during war and famine or stand in allegiance against waring factions. These districts had a specific tartan that clans and prominent families within the district would wear. Although the specific evolution is shrouded in mystery, it is widely accepted that specific clan tartans derived from district tartan patterns and palettes. 


Okay. let's back-up for a quick geography lesson simple enough for my young sons to follow. Imagine Scotland as a double-scoop ice-cream cone. The top scoop represents the mountainous region of Northern Scotland - The Highlands. The bottom scoop represents the Lowlands (although there is still a 3,000 foot peak in this region. Borders is the southern most area of The Lowlands that shares a border with England, the cone. Edinburgh is low (south). Glasgow is high (north ). The characteristics of these cities generally represent the overall attitudes of each region: For all her elegance and loft-mindedness, Edinburgh is a reserved, plain, cautious and thrift city. She is more Lowland, in these respects, than Highland. Glasgow is an expansive, extravagant, romantic, less tight-laced city. - Unknown Scottish Writer

I've read conflicting info regarding Scottish regions, clans and tartans: 
1) Clans are a Highlands and Borders phenomenon. In fact, the majority of Scots in the Lowlands were not apart of a clan. 
2) Tartan designs of Highland and Lowland weavers were produced based on patterns favored in these regions. 
A quick guess is that in 18th-century Scotland as modern government eschewed the feudal system and the farming rich Lowlands became the seat of power in Scotland, clans of this region began to dissipate. By the 19th century, a popular interest in this textile created commercial interest and the design specificities of regional weavers began to take shape. 

The Tipping Point of Tartan

What happened at this time? Stalwarts of 19th-century Western pop culture: literature and monarchy.  The writings of Scot Sir Walter Scott perpetuated the romantic historicism of Scotland and her native dress. BUT! The tipping point of taking tartan from the vernacular to the classically refined style we appreciate today occurred in 1852 when Prince Albert bought Balmoral Castle for Queen Victoria. The interiors were decorated in tartan and the royal couple attended highland games . In short, the royal couple's use of tartan as a staple in Balmoral's interior decoration ushered tartan into fashion and pioneered its use as a hallmark of gentrified interiors. And so tartan history - as we LOVE - actually begins about this time. 

Clan Tartans and Modern Surnames

It is safe to assume that the majority of the tartans that are associated with modern surnames are, yes, an invention of the 19th century. As a result of marriage, migration and occupation over hundreds of years, the original clans as discussed above also had associated derivative surnames. Let's take Clan Donald as in this an example: The most numerous and widespread of the clans, the Clan Donald is one of the families, who, while using different surnames or different methods of writing the same surname, have an identical genealogical derivation. The mode of writing [MacDonald or McDonald, MacDonell or McDonnell} is immaterial, the name is the same; they are of one stock; and the story of Clan Donald is the story of their ancestors. 

Tartan Today

Tartans aren’t just created for clans. Each year about 150 new designs for tartans are created for individuals, families, communities, corporations, events and even ethnic groups. APRIL PRIDE carries Black Watch Tartan, for example, which is a tartan still used today by several military units in the Commonwealth. Some government bodies and regions have even established their own tartans, including many states in the US and many provinces in Canada.

You have also probably seen tartan used by different corporations for advertising and what not. British Airways recently used tartan as a way to “ethnically revamp” their tailfins. The most popular design, Benyhone, ended up on about 30 BA planes flying around the world. Another tartan that’s definitely widely recognizable is the “Burberry Check,” first designed in the early 1920s.

 Burberry check 

Burberry check 

 British Airways tartan plane

British Airways tartan plane

 Barbour waxed cotton hunting coat

Barbour waxed cotton hunting coat

With all of these new designs being created each year, independent organizations in Scotland realized that they needed a centralized official tartan registry. It wasn’t until recently that the Scottish Tartans Authority established the International Tartan Index (ITI) which contains about 3,500 designs with thousands of variants. Scotland’s official tartan register is the Scottish Register of Tartans (SRT) which primarily wants to promote and preserve tartan and is where you would register a new tartan design if you had one today.

Which Tartan is Right For Me?

This brings us to the choice of which tartan is right for me? Well, yes, there are specialized tartans for derivative surnames. A tartan specific to the original (think root) clan is also totally correct as would be a district tartan should you be able to trace your ancestors to a specific spot on the map. The point being you have options. But wait there is more! Today, tartans typically are categorized into three types of styles: modern, ancient and muted. These actually refer to the shades of color on the tartan based on the type of dyes used. Modern uses chemical dyes to bring out intensity in the color so that the reds and yellows are more brilliant and the greens and blues are strong and dark. Modern is more restrained and reductive. Ancient is actually newer than modern. A mid-20th century invention to create new interest in these traditional textiles, the color palette mimics colors produced by vegetable dyes available in tartans in earlier days. Muted, well, think sun-faded version of the modern. 

Buchanan Modern Tartan

Buchanan Hunting Modern Tartan

You might also notice the words Hunting or Dress included in some of the tartans. Hunting tartans were usually developed by clans who had a bright or complicated design and wanted more subdued colors (blues and greens) for outdoor activities. Dress tartans originated from the old arasaide tartans worn by women in the Highlands in the 1800s and 1900s. Dress tartans utilized a white base to make the tartan more vibrant when dancing.

We know that many people who wear tartan are associated with the clan through a surname or personal connection. There have always been claims of an etiquette to wearing tartan or an “entitlement” rather. Some “authorities” on tartan seem to believe that those not directly associated with certain clans or families should not wear the tartans of those clans. Others just say to stay away from Royal tartans designed for royal families to wear. I say let’s celebrate tartan and share the designs and colors that make these patterns special. If you have a name attached, great. If not, great. Tartan is gorgeous, no matter who wears it.

Listen. Tartan is a simple or complicated as you want to make it. Love it for its look or love it for its history. Or do as I have and love it for a little of each. I have four significant tartans relative to my family: James (the given name of my eldest son and husband); Sidney (the given name my younger son); Allison (my husband and children's surname) and Pride (my surname). So as to not shatter my constant mantra to my sons "you are both my favorite," I'll say this - I have THE SKIRT in the Allison tartan. I do have love for its tartan pattern and palette.  But the significant past, present and future of this wardrobe staple is wrapped up in the love I have for my three Allison boys.  

Do you have a question about tartan that I haven’t answered? Please feel free to ask me anything. Let’s talk tartans!

xXx April