Keltfacts: Tartan

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our new series Keltfacts. In this blog we are looking into tartan, the patterned cloth that is being used for kilts.

The well renowned kilt fabric is more than a few pretty colours stitched together. In this blogpost, we will explain all about the patterns and meaning of tartan, the checkered wool fabric.

How is a tartan patten made?

The pattern is created by alternately woven bands. These strokes of fabric are in different dyes. They are then woven horizontally and vertically in order to get the famous checkered pattern. Because of the way the colours line up, some parts are brighter where others are more muted. The colour of the wool used to be naturally dyed with plants or flowers. This also meant that the wool lost its colour quickly when the Highlanders would wear their kilt day in and day out. The discovery of more chemical dyes made it possible to make the colour last longer as well as introduce brighter colours. We’re then already at the ‘modern tartan’. Back in the days, tartan would only be made in wool. Nowadays it’s also printed or dyed on other materials like cotton.

What’s the history of tartan and what does it mean?

In the beginning, weaver families would create their own pattern and colour scheme. Some berries or plants would only be available in a certain area, thus those were the only colours that could be used. Civilians that lived in that area would be limited to wearing that type of tartan. Transporting other wool costed a lot of time and money so people would wear what was available to them.

During the Jacobite rebellions in 1745, Highlanders would side with Bonnie Prince Charlie. However, after their loss at the Battle of Culloden, tartan became prohibited. The government called a “Dress Act” in which men were forbidden to wear this fabric. However, if you joined the army, you were allowed to wear tartan. This way some highlanders were able to keep tartan from being completely lost. This law was in place for 35 years. When it was abolished, many patterns for tartan were already forgotten. In 1822 tartan was revived after king George IV believed that civilians in official duty should wear their own tartan.

Because so many patterns were lost, weavers of that day and age could redesign new patterns and colours. So at the beginning of the nineteenth century, tartan patterns were designed specifically for clans and families. Nowadays there are over 25.000 registered tartans. Even companies, armies and regions outside of Scotland have their own tartan. Canada has their own pattern, the ‘maple leaf tartan’ which actually became their official national symbol in 2011.

Your own kilt?

Tartan is the pride of Scotland. The rich cultural background gives a feeling of alliance and togetherness. While at events like the Highland Games, it’s a lot easier to find your own clan after a game or pub fight 😊.

Are you in a clan with their own tartan? How would your tartan look, if you could design your own?

By Dewi van Zeggelaar

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