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Fabric Friday: Tartan and plaid

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Nov 12, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    My papa, the piper

    I grew up with a father who was the pipe major of several bagpipe bands (and oh yes, I learned to play the pipes) and I very often heard that no plaid-patterned fabric that wasn’t a genuine tartan should ever be called a tartan. For those of you who didn’t have this drilled into your consciousness at an early age, I offer today’s fabrics of the week:

    Tartan is traditional Scottish right-hand twill weave wool in distinct criss-cross patterns. The pattern is called a sett. Each tartan is tied to a clan, regiment or district of Scotland, and there have gradually been added further officially-recognized tartans, such as those of Canadian provinces and U.S. states. All tartans are registered in Edinburgh, by the Scottish Register of Tartans, maintained by the National Records of Scotland. Not everyone agrees with this, but I would argue that all tartans are plaids—but it is certain that no plaids without official recognition should use the name tartan.

    For each clan there may be a number of official tartans, such as dress, hunting and ancient (which use more muted colors—from the days of natural dyes). Originally worn as the belted plaid (long straight shawl belted at the waist), then the pleated, wrapped kilt, tartan has also historically been worn in the form of trousers, or truis.

    The best known tartans are generally thought to be Royal Stewart and Black Watch.

    Now tartans may be made of any fibers, but still are most characteristically wool. I would say that a printed tartan is still a tartan pattern, but I would have to call out that it was printed, not woven. Same with plain-weave tartan—I'd call out the weave.

    The origin of the word tartan is thought to come from a combination of the French tiretain (probably derived from tirer, “to pull,” referring to a woven cloth) and the Gaelic breacan, “many colors.” Uses: Kilts, plaids and trousers are traditional, also now used for everything from coats to evening wear

    See also:

    Plaid (below)
    Wool tartan (Buchanan)

    Plaid is a pattern of bars and/or lines that criss-cross at right angles. The name plaid comes from the traditional Scottish tartan woolen shawl, fastened with a brooch at the shoulder. Confusion arises in regards to its nomenclature since in the U.S. it is the name of a fabric pattern. A plaid without official registration as a tartan should not be called a tartan. (If you are interested in historical Scottish clothing such as the plaid, this is a good summary.)

    See also:

    District checks
    Glen plaid
    Tartan (above)

    Plaid acetate taffeta

    One additional note: I find the House of Tartan Reverse Tartan Search extremely helpful for finding the names of true tartans, such as this one, which I found to be Dress MacDonald. Give it a whirl!


    Pendleton 49er jackets can be found in tartans, but this one is a plaid—

    Dress Gordon tartan kilt, Gordon tartan bagpipe bag.

    District checks deserve their own day—maybe next week.

    Any thoughts or questions about tartan and plaid?
  2. The Vintage Merchant

    The Vintage Merchant Administrator Staff Member

    Tartans always get me in the mood for two "seasons": Back To School and The Holidays. love 'em!
  3. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    I have no idea what you are talking about Mary. :hysterical:

  4. The Vintage Merchant

    The Vintage Merchant Administrator Staff Member

  5. I have always been very partial to plaid! So interesting, Maggie. And, love the pipes, too! Wonderful photo of your Father. Thanks for this Friday Fabric!
    denisebrain likes this.
  6. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    Thank you, Maggie!

    Regarding the clan tartans... They are a bit of an invention, with a lot of thanks to Sir Walter Scott :). This is an excellent blog post - though it's about the tartans and men's costumes in "Outlander", it talks a lot about tartans, where they came from, how they were worn - and it debunks a few myths: https://www.frockflicks.com/the-real-deal-on-tartan-kilts-and-outlander-costumes/
  7. amandainvermont

    amandainvermont VFG Member

    This is wonderful - thanks Maggie.
    denisebrain likes this.
  8. Retro Ruth

    Retro Ruth Administrator Staff Member

    yes from what I've read, clan tartans were a Victorian invention. Before that, there would have been certain regional differences within Scotland, to do with the availability of natural dyes, but no more than that.
    denisebrain and Midge like this.
  9. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    You're right, the idea of clan tartan is rather modern—Georgian and Victorian Romanticism. I was definitely weaned on that Scottish romantic ideal which was having another moment in mid-20th century. My father keenly played up (actually, overemphasized) our family association with Scotland. His family was in fact Welsh and Irish mainly.

    And there would be no technical distinction from the Scottish Register until really late in the game.

    Here's some more early history from Wikipedia, which I need to learn better myself:

    This page shows a number of early tartans:

    This remarkable scrap of fabric is the Qizilchoqa mummy tartan. You may have heard about the Caucasoid mummies that were discovered in Western China in 1979? The remains of the people showed that they were very tall, had thick and light brown or blonde hair and beards. Look at the twill weave, the varying thickness of the lines, and the multiple colors. This scrap of fabric dates from around 2000 – 1000 BCE.
  10. Retro Ruth

    Retro Ruth Administrator Staff Member

  11. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    That's fascinating reading! That bit of fabric from western China is amazing. And whilst I am well aware of Hallstatt, I didn't know that bit about the fabric.

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