How is Tartan Made? Where Does it Come From?

How is tartan made?

All our products here at Palmer Designs are made using 100% woollen tartan fabrics. While the manufacturers differ, they’re all woven right here in Scotland using the finest materials. But how are tartans made? Where did they come from? And how do you choose a tartan to use?

Read on to find out!

 Where did tartan come from?

Tartan, also known as plaid in North America, is a cloth that has a criss-cross pattern of colours, usually associated with a Scottish clan. While it’s true that all tartans can be called plaids in the U.S., not all plaids are tartans. In fact, in Scottish culture, a plaid is also the name for a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder as a kilt accessory, often used at weddings or formal ceremonies.

There are many theories about where the name ‘tartan’ actually comes from. Many suggest that it comes from the French word tartarin (cloth of The Tartars). Others think it may derive from the Gaelic word tarsainn (across), or the Gaelic words tuar and tan, meaning 'colour' and 'district' respectively.

The number of tartans is huge – there are well over 4,000 tartans that are registered! While you may think you can choose any of these patterns to wear, many of these tartans are rarely if ever woven so it can be impossible to use them. A select few also have very strict rules on how and where you can use them since they are registered to a particular name or organisation. But the good news is that there aren’t many of those and so there are plenty of tartans in common circulation that can be worn without restriction.


Why were tartans banned?

People often think tartan patterns are centuries old, worn by the original clans of the 12th century. The history is a little complex and the most likely explanation is unfortunately not as romantic – tartans were probably only invented during the 19th century by the weaving industry. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the Celtic people of the Dark Ages, and later the Clans of Scotland, did wear chequered fabrics that were different between each of the regions. Each area (and thus associated Clan) therefore was likely to have its own distinct pattern. How similar these ancient patterns are to the ones we recognize today, it’s hard to say.

Part of the reason the historical tartans are not more fully understood is because Highland Dress was actually banned after the Battle of Culloden in 1746 by the Crown, who was trying to crush the clan system. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Scottish revival brought about the reintroduction of tartans. Unfortunately, many of the old patterns had been forgotten and had to be re-invented, with the Victorian clan chiefs often adopting new tartans for their clan that were almost certainly brighter and more colourful.

The building blocks of tartan

Today, each colourful tartan has a very specific way in which it is made. The traditional method is to weave it using a loom, made of a warp (the vertical stripes) and a weft (the horizontal stripes). It’s important that each warp and weft meet at a right angle, otherwise you’ll end up with a rather squint pattern!

Each tartan is made of a base pattern called a sett. The sett is like the code of the tartan, where each different design has a unique combination of vertical and horizontal lines and blocks of colour to create a pattern that is repeated throughout the cloth. Think of a sett as a building block, which you repeat over and over to make a piece of fabric as big as you like. Setts typically measure 5 to 6 inches (12 - 15 cms) in modern day kilts which equates to around 250 threads per sett using a medium weight wool yarn.

Different types of the same tartan

Most, if not all, clans today have their own unique tartan pattern that is registered to that particular Clan. In fact, many Clans often have more than one version of a tartan:

  • Ancient: Not necessarily older, ancient refers to the colour palette used. Generally softer and lighter than a ‘Modern’ design
  • Modern: Also not reflective of the age, modern generally refers to the colour palette. Typically stronger and darker hues.
  • Hunting: Traditionally used while members of the clan were on a hunt, so patterns generally feature a lot of browns and greens to match natural surroundings
  • Dress: Usually recognized by the prominence of white in the designs, dress tartans are used for formal events and Highland Dancing Kilts.
  • Weathered: Patterns have muted tones and faded colours to create an effect of being exposed to outdoor elements.

While there are certainly many varieties of tartan, nowadays it really doesn’t matter which variety you go for. The ‘standard’ for each Clan is usually the Modern version, but that’s not always the case. It’s completely up to your own personal preference!

Can I wear a tartan even if I don’t have the surname?

It’s a common myth that you can’t wear a tartan unless it matches your surname. The truth is that you actually wear almost any tartan you like. (There are a few exceptions, like the Royal Family tartans but these are few and far between!)

If you go far back enough through your family tree, you will likely soon enough come across the name of a clan or a sept that has its own tartan. If not, don’t fear! You can either choose a tartan based on a professional or geographical connection. Many universities for example have their own patterns, and many regions do, too.

Finally, if you can’t seem to find any connection then there are always the ‘universal tartans’. These can be worn without restriction and include gorgeous patterns like the Royal Stewart (the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II), Hunting Stewart, Black Watch (used by several military units in the British Army) and the Flower of Scotland tartans.

Embrace your inner Scot and find a tartan you love today!



1 comment

  • Glen Moyer

    Another alternative in searching for a tartan is to have your own created and woven. I did.

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