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Tartan Ferret

Foundations of Research

by James Scarlett MBE

8th October 1994

To those brought up in the conventional view that on the eighth day God made tartan and on the ninth He pinned up a list showing who should wear each pattern, the need for research into the origin, development and manufacture of the Highland textile is less than obvious.

Indeed, most people, when confronted with the idea of tartan research, are inclined to ask why it should be of any importance, since everything is already known, and it is only the most perspicacious who go so far as to suppose that tartan research may be more than just a matter of learning to recognise all the patterns.

When it is realised however, that tartan is a truly Highland art form, a beautiful and durable cloth produced with great skill and considerable technical competence and almost entirely from local resources, it becomes more apparent that our knowledge of this part of our Highland heritage is sadly deficient. It should go without saying that this side of the story of tartan is a fascinating one, far
more so than the popular myths and fantasies.

Of the four primary aspects of tartan two, spinning and weaving, have been adequately investigated and can be taught and demonstrated. Children react very favourably and, in particular, can learn very quickly to spin a fine and even thread on the drop-spindle, which was all that was available to Highland spinners until the mid-eighteenth century.

However, the art-form has yet to be analysed and virtually nothing is known of how the Highland dyers set about their business of obtaining a consistent range of colours from the infusions of local plants and the simple mordents that were available to them. The art form is the subject of a separate paper, but fundamental to it is the discovery and cataloguing of as many pieces of old tartan as possible. They are not scarce. Most museums and many private individuals in the Highlands have fragments; the process of examining and cataloguing them is in no way harmful to the specimens and could be a useful service to museums, where the collections are often not catalogued and where specimens may have been misnamed long ago, subsequent curators being without either the knowledge or courage to correct them.

There are D.C.Stewart's SINDEX and my own pattern classification system to help with recording, the former, available in my Archive, containing a wealth of material to assist in identification. There are indications that regional styles of pattern existed. These are not the modern 'district' tartans but a general similarity of background over a wide area with local embellishments. Analysis of such trends is desirable though there is at present no indication of where this might lead.
The so-called "vegetable" dyes (natural dyes is a better name for them) are a great "Romantic" mystery to the modern craft-dyers, who are generally happy to get a colour from an infusion of some part of a plant, without worrying too much about what colour it is or if they can do it again. The old Highland dyers did worry about what colour they got (though they were not above working a faulty dye-batch into a run of tartan) and they managed to get the same colour time and time again.

Something is known of the mordents used and long lists have been published which purport to tell us what plant produces which colour, though these lists, having been largely copied blindly and without any attempt to verify them, are of use only for general guidance. It is known, however, that temperature, particularly overheating, can adversely affect results and also that fermentation of the dye-bath, sometimes with the addition of ammonia, will often produce results when more impatient methods fail.

Ordered, methodical experiment is all that is needed in this field and no special apparatus is required; the Highland dyers only had iron cooking pots. Tartan research is practical and inexpensive and, to a degree, educational; it is also largely self-motivating, for almost every result one gets is a discovery, and of absorbing interest. Above all, it does not call for an Arts or Science degree; anybody can find some outlet for his or her particular talents.



© Scottish Tartans Authority
Scottish Tartans Authority (Scottish limited company no. 162386), c/o J & H Mitchell, 51 Atholl Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5BU
Scottish Charity Number SCO24310

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