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Tartan is unique to Scotland. As part of its national dress it has developed from the roughly woven plaid, coloured from local pigment dyes, in which early Highlanders wrapped themselves for battle to some of the highest quality and intricate designs that can be bought today.
Many of the traditions now associated with kilts can be traced back to the formation of Highland Regiments, yet for 30 years after the battle of Culloden and the ending of the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the wearing of tartan and playing the pipes was forbidden by the British Government. Any Scotsman who dared to wear the kilt was imprisoned or even deported to far away lands.
Highland wear was returned to fashion by King George IV when he visited Scotland. He adopted the wearing of tartan and this Royal patronage rekindled the life of tartan and Highland wear throughout the world.
Each clan or family name has its own tartan and clan crest. Each tartan has variations of ancient, hunting, modern, dress and withered colourings. In the past, official clan tartans were governed by the clan chief with final approval being made in the Court of the Lord Lyon of Arms which governed Scottish heraldry.
Most Scottish clans have their own tartan, if not you will find that they are affiliated to a clan which does. For example the name, Paterson does not have its own tartan but it is affiliated to the clan MacLaren making that our official tartan.
Most kilts are made from tartan fabric, although contemporary kilts can be made from plain colour, camouflage, pin stripe, tweed, furry or any other type of fabric that takes the wearer’s fancy!
Tartans are often associated with Scottish clan heritage, where each family name has a number of distinctive tartan patterns associated with it. Often these are slight modifications of each other and can include an ancient design, a hunting design, a dress design and the common modern design (explained further below). However, specific tartans associated with clans or names is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the 19th century Victorian era when they began to be formalized and systematically recorded, usually by weavers. Before this, tartans enjoyed a more regional association rather than a clan association, but today they can be registered for almost anything!
Tartan setts (for men’s kilts) are always arranged vertically and horizontally and are specified by their thread counts, the sequence of colours used in their production and their resulting units of width. Usually, the units of width are the physical number of threads used in their production. For example, the Wallace tartan has a thread count of 4 black, followed by 32 red, etc, in both the weft and the warp. However, this can be altered as long as the overall effect is the same (eg 2 black, followed by 16 red, etc). The weight of the thread used, therefore affects the size of a single sett, and the overall appearance of the finished product. A thicker thread will create a heaver fabric, and a larger sett. Most tartans feature a pivot point where the weaver reverses the weaving sequence to create mirror image of the pattern, and as such are called symmetrical tartans. Some tartans do not feature a pivot point, and the weaver completes the sequence all the way through, before starting the next sett.
The colours used in tartans vary considerably between tartans, but also between the mills which weave the tartans. A given tartan from one mill is unlikely to be exactly the same when compared to the same tartan from another mill. This is down to artistic preference, but also to the physical process of dying the thread, which can vary with each batch. As previously mentioned, a single clan can have more than one tartan associated with it. There are four main groups of tartan colourings:
The Scottish Tartans Authority maintains a collection of fabric samples and maintains the database of all registered Scottish Tartans.