Tartan (Scottish Gaelic: breacan [ˈpɾʲɛxkən]) is a patterned cloth consisting of criss-crossed, horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland, as Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns.
Today tartan is no longer limited to textiles, but is also used as a name for the pattern itself, appearing on media such as paper, plastics, packaging, and wall coverings. The use of tartan has spread outside the British Isles, particularly to countries who have been influenced by Scottish culture.
The English and Scots word "tartan" is most likely derived from the French tartarin meaning "Tartar cloth". It has also been suggested that "tartan" may be derived from modern Scottish Gaelic tarsainn, meaning "across". Today "tartan" usually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of a pattern at all. As late as the 1830s tartan was sometimes described as "plain coloured ... without pattern". Patterned cloth from the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning many colours. Over time the meanings of tartan and breacan were combined to describe certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth. The pattern of a tartan is called a sett. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles.
Today tartan is generally used to describe the pattern, not limited to textiles. In North America the term plaid is commonly used to describe tartan. The word plaid, derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning "blanket", was first used of any rectangular garment, sometimes made up of tartan, particularly that which preceded the modern kilt (see: belted plaid). In time, plaid was used to describe blankets themselves.
Each thread in the warp crosses each thread in the weft at right angles. Where a thread in the warp crosses a thread of the same colour in the weft they produce a solid colour on the tartan, while a thread crossing another of a different colour produces an equal mixture of the two colours. Thus, a set of two base colours produces three different colours including one mixture, increasing quadratically with the number of base colours so a set of six base colours produces fifteen mixtures and a total of twenty-one different colours. This means that the more stripes and colours used, the more blurred and subdued the tartan's pattern becomes.
The sequence of threads, known as the sett, starts at an edge and either repeats or reverses on what are called pivot points. In diagram A, the sett reverses at the first pivot, then repeats, then reverses at the next pivot, and will carry on in this manner horizontally. In diagram B, the sett reverses and repeats in the same way as the warp, and also carries on in the same manner vertically. The diagrams left illustrate the construction of a "symmetrical" tartan. However, on an "asymmetrical" tartan, the sett does not reverse at the pivots, it just repeats at the pivots. Also, some tartans (very few) do not have exactly the same sett for the warp and weft. This means the warp and weft will have alternate thread counts.
Tartan is recorded by counting the threads of each colour that appear in the sett.[a] The thread count not only describes the width of the stripes on a sett, but also the colours used. For example, the thread count "K4 R24 K24 Y4" corresponds to 4 black threads, 24 red threads, 24 black threads, 4 yellow threads. Usually the thread count is an even number to assist in manufacture. The first and last threads of the thread count are the pivot points. Though thread counts are indeed quite specific, they can be modified in certain circumstances, depending on the desired size of the tartan. For example, the sett of a tartan (about 6 inches) may be too large to fit upon the face of a necktie. In this case the thread count has to be reduced in proportion (about 3 inches).
The shades of colour in tartan can be altered to produce variations of the same tartan. The resulting variations are termed: modern, ancient, and muted.[b] These terms only refer to dye colours.
The idea that the various colours used in tartan have a specific meaning is purely a modern one. One such myth is that red tartans were "battle tartans", designed so they would not show blood. It is only recently created tartans, such as Canadian provincial and territorial tartans (beginning 1950s) and US state tartans (beginning 1980s), that are designed with certain symbolic meaning for the colours used. For example, the colour green sometimes represents prairies or forests, blue can represent lakes and rivers, and the colour yellow is sometimes used to represent various crops.
Today tartan is mostly associated with Scotland; however, the earliest evidence of tartan is found far afield from Britain. According to the textile historian E. J. W. Barber, the Hallstatt culture of Central Europe, which is linked with ancient Celtic populations and flourished between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, produced tartan-like textiles. Some of them were discovered in 2004, remarkably preserved, in the Hallstatt salt mines near Salzburg, Austria. Textile analysis of fabric from the Tarim mummies in Xinjiang, northwestern China has also shown it to be similar to that of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture. Tartan-like leggings were found on the "Cherchen Man", a 3,000 year-old mummy found in the Taklamakan Desert. Similar finds have been made in central Europe and Scandinavia.
The earliest documented tartan in Britain, known as the "Falkirk" tartan, dates from the 3rd century AD. It was uncovered at Falkirk in Stirlingshire, Scotland, near the Antonine Wall. The fragment, held in the National Museums of Scotland, was stuffed into the mouth of an earthenware pot containing almost 2,000 Roman coins. The Falkirk tartan has a simple check design, of natural light and dark wool. Early forms of tartan like this are thought to have been invented in pre-Roman times, and would have been popular among the inhabitants of the northern Roman provinces as well as in other parts of Northern Europe such as Jutland, where the same pattern was prevalent.
The tartan as we know it today is not thought to have existed in Scotland before the 16th century. By the late 16th century there are numerous references to striped or checkered plaids. It is not until the late 17th or early 18th century that uniformity in tartan is thought to have occurred. Martin Martin, in A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, published in 1703, wrote that Scottish tartans could be used to distinguish the inhabitants of different regions. He expressly wrote that the inhabitants of various islands and the mainland of the Highlands were not all dressed alike, but that the setts and colours of the various tartans varied from isle to isle.[d] As he does not mention the use of a special pattern by each family, it would appear that such a distinction is a modern one.
For centuries the patterns were loosely associated with the weavers of a particular area, though it was common for highlanders to wear a number of different tartans at the same time. A 1587 charter granted to Hector Maclean of Duart requires feu duty on land paid as 60 ells of cloth of white, black and green colours. A witness of the 1689 Battle of Killiecrankie describes "McDonnell's men in their triple stripes". From 1725 the government force of the Highland Independent Companies introduced a standardised tartan chosen to avoid association with a particular clan, and this was formalised when they became the Black Watch regiment in 1739.
The most effective fighters for Jacobitism were the supporting Scottish clans, leading to an association of tartans with the Jacobite cause. Efforts to pacify the Highlands led to the Dress Act of 1746, banning tartans, except for the Highland regiments of the British army. "[I]t was probably their use of it which gave birth to the idea of differentiating tartan by clans; for as the Highland regiments were multiplied ... so their tartan uniforms were differentiated."
The act was repealed in 1782, due to the efforts of the Highland Society of London. William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn became the foremost weaving manufacturer around 1770 as suppliers of tartan to the military. Wilson corresponded with his agents in the Highlands to get information and samples of cloth from the clan districts to enable him to reproduce "perfectly genuine patterns" and recorded over 200 setts by 1822. The Cockburn Collection of named samples made by William Wilson & Sons was put together between 1810 and 1820 and is now in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. At this time setts were simply numbered, or given fanciful names such as the "Robin Hood" tartan, not associated with a specific clan.
It is generally regarded that "clan tartans" date no earlier than the beginning of the 19th century, and are an example of an invented tradition. Contemporary portraits show that although tartan is of an early date, the pattern worn depended not on the wearer's clan, but rather upon his or her present affiliation, place of origin or current residence, or personal taste.
David Morier's well-known mid-1700s painting of the Highland charge at the Battle of Culloden (right) shows the clansmen wearing various tartans. The setts painted differ from one another and very few of those painted resemble today's clan tartans. The method of identifying friend from foe was not through tartans but by the colour of ribbon worn upon the bonnet.[e][f]
The idea of groups of men wearing the same tartan is thought to originate from the military units in the 18th century. Evidence suggests that in 1725 the Independent Highland Companies may have worn a uniform tartan. 350c69d7ab