What is Tartan?

When you think of Scotland, probably the most important symbols that spring to mind are the kilt and the tartan fabric from which it is made. In that sense, tartan, in the modern mind, is an indicator of national identity.

This underlines how complex the history of tartan is. When tartan says "Scotland" to us, it  brings to mind rebellion and loyalty, royalty and non-elites, and fashion and function. 

So what exactly is tartan? It is a woven fabric, generally made of wool, but nowadays also available in wool blends and synthetic fibres. The design is made up of stripes of different colours that vary in breadth.

To create the fabric, coloured yarns are arranged in a unique pattern that, when woven, become the "sett". This "sett" comprises a series of squares, intersected with stripes and is repeated over and over again to make up a length of tartan.

In earlier times, tartan fabric was spun, dyed, woven and fashioned into everyday wear locally in the Highlands. Early tartans incorporated only two or three colours, or a simple check pattern. And, out of sheer practicality, the resulting fabric was worn by everyone in the community.

The geographical uniqueness of each tartan resulted from the vegetable dyes used to colour the yarn. These were extracted from plants, roots, berries and trees that grew locally. As a result, local tartans became associated with the particular community, or Clan.

The development of chemical dyes enabled weavers introduce more elaborate patterns with more vivid and varied colours. These became known as 'modern' colours and, over the past two hundred years, the number and variety of tartans has continued to grow.

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