What is Tartan Patterns – Easy Guide to Tartan Fabric

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Not only are tartan patterns popular, but they also have quite a symbolic history and have been at the centre of many controversies over the years. Tartans were believed to have been worn by Scottish Highlanders and each clan supposedly wore a tartan distinct from others. If you believe this, then you`re one of the countless people who believe the myth. But there`s so much more to know about this highly romanticized fabric.

Tartan PatternsPinTartan Patterns


Tartan PatternsWhat Does the Word Tartan Mean?What are Tartan Patterns?History of Tartan PatternsHow Are Tartans Made?What are Tartan Patterns Used for? Different Types of Tartan PatternsAncient Tartan PatternsModern Tartan PatternsDress Tartan PatternsWeathered Tartan PatternsHunting Tartan PatternsMuted Tartan PatternsDifference Between Tartan Patterns, Plaid & CheckHow to Care For Your TartanWhat are Tartan Patterns – In Conclusion 

Tartan Patterns

By the end of this article, you`ll know all about tartan patterns; the different designs available, the kind of fabric it`s made from, myths, and the difference between a tartan and a plaid. I have also included a little history lesson on the origins so that you are more informed on tartan patterns than the next person. 

What Does the Word Tartan Mean?

The word tartan is said to be of Scottish-Gaelic origin and is a patterned cloth consisting of crisscrossed, vertical and horizontal bands. These bands are in different, multiple, and intertwined colours. 

What are Tartan Patterns?

A tartan pattern is a clothing fabric with patterns consisting of several crisscrossed colored threads, with horizontal and vertical bands that run through the warp and weft of the fabric in multiple colors. These blocks of color then form a distinctive pattern of squares called a Sett. 

Tartan was originally made with woolen fabrics, but modern tartans can be made with different fabrics, especially cotton. It began as a two-color check made with colors from available natural dyes, created to specifically suit local taste and its wearer’s preference, but tartans today come in a variety of colors and patterns. 

The tartan pattern is no longer restricted to just textile but can be found on paper, plastic, packaging, wall design, and mainstream media.

History of Tartan Patterns

Now, to the short history lesson promised. Tartans are believed to have originated in the Highlands around 3000 BC. The woven cloth is not native to Scotland as the earliest know tartan is dated back to the third or fourth century. However, the pattern is mostly affiliated with the Scottish Highlanders and different Clans. In the Island of Scotland, different Tartan patterns were used to distinguish the different regions and clans. 

After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the British government banned the wearing of Tartan and clothing related to the pattern in the Highlands to subdue the Scottish rebellion by enacting the Dress Act of 1746. However, after the law was repealed in 1782, the pattern was adopted as Scotland`s national and official dress in commemoration of its significance in Scottish history. 

The mid-19th century saw a significant boom in commercial demand for tartans as patterns began to be associated with different Scottish families and clans. This led weavers to begin the production of tartan in large quantities. As the sole supplier of tartans, William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn began to name their tartans after specific Highland Clans to identify and differentiate them.

In the 19th century, clans began choosing specific tartan patterns. This trend began after King George IV came to Edinburgh and indicated that everyone should wear their tartan. Thus, the belief that different tartan patterns belong to a particular clan came to be. 

How Are Tartans Made?

Ever looked at a charming tartan pattern and wondered how it was made? Unfortunately, Tartan patterns don’t come easy. It involves a meticulous, complex, and very specialized process that begins with the winding. First, a natural creamy white shade of wool is wound onto flexible cones then dye colors are applied. 

The yarn is put in a spin dryer for about 13-14minutes after it has been drained. It is then placed in a drying oven, held at 160 degrees to make sure the coverage is consistent. The yarn is not allowed to dry fully to maintain enough moisture to make it workable for subsequent stages of processing. 

The newly dyed yarn is woven into hard cones for weaving or warping. The tartan pattern is replicated in series throughout the entire width of the warp, resulting in the width of the cloth. The fabric comes together where the warp and the weft meet (the yarn that goes over and under the warp yarns meets at a right angle) to make a woven cloth. The sequence of the threads is called the sett, and the pattern is recorded by counting each thread that appears in the sett.

What are Tartan Patterns Used for? 

Tartans are used to make clothing items that are regarded as traditional Scottish dress. They include kilt, trews, and philabeg. These dresses can be worn with Cuaran, shoes, or untanned hides. If you`re aren`t what kilts, trews, and philabegs are, here`s a short description:

Kilt: Remember when you were young and couldn`t quite understand why Scottish men wore skirts? Yea, that`s a kilt. But kilts aren`t worn by men alone. While you`re more likely to see a kilt on a Scottish man, women can also wear them. Philabeg: A philabeg is a short kilt. It was considered an inexpensive alternative to the great kilt. Trews: They are a form of tartan trousers. Tartan PatternsTartan PatternsPinTartan Patterns

Different Types of Tartan Patterns

It is estimated that over seven thousand different tartans are available with new patterns created yearly. There are few tartan patterns restricted only for members of a particular clan. Here are a few of the common types of tartan patterns.

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However, we will now discuss the Scottish Tartan Pattern which is split into five different types.

Ancient Tartan Patterns

These ancient tartans were made mostly from vegetable dyes from plants and animals. Today they are made in softer and lighter shades like blues and green

Modern Tartan Patterns

These tartan designs were created after 1860. They are made with dark, bold and vivid shades. Unlike before, chemical dyes are now available so the designs are made with stronger, long-lasting darker colours that will not fade.

Dress Tartan Patterns

These are mainly worn for formal occasions and are distinguished by the prominent white in the designs.

Weathered Tartan Patterns

Historically, men wore kilts both day and night to protect themselves from the harsh and tough climate of the Highlands. Patterns have subdued tones and fading colors to simulate exposure to outdoor elements. Therefore, black is made less intense, green is made darker into a darker shade, and red is made deeper to shield men from exposure to elements.

Hunting Tartan Patterns

Traditionally worn by clan members when hunting, the designs contain lots of brown and green made from natural dyes to help blend in with natural greens of the woodlands surroundings during hunting. 

Muted Tartan Patterns

This type of tartan is completely contemporary. The colors used for this pattern have significant meanings based on the wearer’s preference. It also has very little difference from the Modern tartan as colors used in Muted Tartans look more realistic and closer to the original base color.

Difference Between Tartan Patterns, Plaid & Check

Although all tartans are plaids, not all plaids are tartans. This can be quite confusing for many since both materials are similar and it`s hard to tell them apart. The word plaid is wrongly used to describe crisscross patterns. It is also used synonymously with tartan.

Further Reading:

Checkered PatternsWhat is Plaid

The most telling difference is that tartan patterns are made up of building blocks called sett that are repeated throughout the fabric. The lines are repeated several times around the vertical and horizontal axes, which is not always the case for plaid. Tartan fabrics always have crisscross patterns which are typically in an irregular sequence. Also, they are symbolic of Scottish heritage and often have a significant name associating the tartan pattern with a specific clan.

On the other hand, plaid is an old Scottish word for a blanket or wrap and this is one of the reasons it`s easily confused for a tartan. Plaids are used to describe any crisscross patterns that comprise two or more colours. 

Checks are also plaids with regular, non-complex patterns made of only two colours while tartans have multiple shades. Unlike tartans, plaids do not have the same repeated pattern. This means the sett pattern isn`t always visible.

Check patterns are also used to describe all other textiles that have tartan-like patterns but are not connected or linked to any Scottish family, heritage, association or clans. However, some plaids are registered by the Scottish Register of Tartans. 

In Scotland, a plaid is used to describe a large tartan cloth that can be worn as a kilt or a large shawl over the shoulder which is part of the Highlander traditional attire or costume.

How to Care For Your Tartan

Considering the time and effort it takes to make tartan patterns, these fabrics are not cheap. To preserve its beauty, it is important to take good care of your Tartan. Here`s how:

Being made from natural fabrics, it should be allowed to dry after each wear to prevent mildew.Hang the plastic garment bag to keep it in shape and prevent moth or dust.Clean with baby wipes or a clean cloth with warm or cold water to remove stains immediately.Leave it out to sundry. This prevents moths from making their home in it.Don’t be too quick to use heat as wool does not do too well with heat. However, it is advisable to use a steaming iron alongside a pressing cloth for your tartan if you must iron. Do not dry-clean but if you must, ensure the dry cleaner has sufficient experience with tartan clothes.

What are Tartan Patterns – In Conclusion 

Tartans never seem to go out of fashion, whether on the run-way or mainstream fashion, it seems to never lose its appeal. You can decide to wear it in a fashionable pleated or pencil tartan skirt, a trendy blazer, or a chic dress. Tartan patterns also pair nicely with other patterns or fabric. Whatever you decide to do with your tartan pattern, be such to remember the rich history, culture and effort that goes passes through every thread to make a magnificent tartan.

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