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Tartan - Scottish Traditional Craft

Perhaps more than any other Scottish traditional craft, tartan is associated internationally with Scottish culture.

For many, tartan is synonymous with kilts but tartan actually describes the distinctive pattern that is created when coloured threads are woven at right angles to each other, as both warp and weft, on the loom.

Where threads of the same colour cross each other, a block of solid colour is produced. Visible diagonal lines are formed where different colours cross, which gives the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones.

These blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares know as a sett.

Nowadays, tartan can be woven in silk, cotton and cashmere, as well as traditional wool. Tartan is no longer restricted to woven textiles but is printed on all kinds of products and lends itself to endless reinvention.

Couture designer Vivienne Westwood is renowned for her use of tartan and Harris Tweed. Scottish maker, Ian Grant, even makes tartan from trees!

Many contemporary Scottish textile designers undertake commissions to design and weave new tartans.

The earliest documented tartan found in Britain dates from the 3rd century AD and is known as the Falkirk tartan because it was found in Falkirk in Scotland, buried near the Antonine Wall. The fragment of woollen cloth has a simple light and dark check design and was found stuffed into the mouth of a pot full of Roman coins.

One of the first recorded mentions of tartan dates from 1538 when King James V purchased Highland tartan for his wife.

By the time of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, tartan had become so identified with Scottish culture that it was banned by an Act of Parliament, except as a uniform for officers and soldiers of Highland regiments in the British army.

The Dress Act was repealed in 1782 but some historians believe it was the use of tartan by the army that gave birth to the idea of associating particular patterns to different clans. Before this, the pattern of setts and colours varied from region to region, usually associated with the weavers of a particular area and the dyes available locally.

By 1822, over 200 different setts had been recorded and numbered or named.

There was a craze for tartan in the 19th century following King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh and the fashion for tartan and all things Scottish continued to grow during Queen Victoria’s reign.

Tartan Facts:

  • The world’s first colour photograph, made by Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, was of a tartan ribbon.
  • The annual celebration of Scottish heritage, which takes place every year on 06 April, is named Tartan Day.
  • Edinburgh Zoo recently unveiled a Panda Tartan, to commemorate the arrival of two pandas from China.

Find out more about tartan:

  • The Scottish Tartans Authority is a charity created by Scotland’s leading weavers and tartan retailers. They have compiled an International Tartan Index, which records and documents all known historical tartans.
  • In 2008 the Scottish Government established the Scottish Register of Tartans, to protect, promote and preserve tartan.

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