Tartan Ferret
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Designing your Tartan

Tartan designing is one of those mysteries that modern life has placed within reach of everyone with access to a computer. Gone are the coloured crayons, the graph paper, the head-scratching, the endless drafts and the worrying uncertainty as to exactly what the woven result would look like. Going back even further, gone too are the skills that allowed the bothy weaver to compose a new design in his head and translate it straight onto his warp - the longitudinal threads of the tartan.

Nowadays, you can punch a few buttons and hit return and 'Hey Presto!" you have a tartan . . .or do you? Computers make the process deceptively simple but they can't take the place of the human eye. They can't display good taste and an aesthetic sensitivity. They can't call on accumulated historical knowledge or innovative design elements to produce a finished tartan that does justice to this very ancient Celtic art form - the earliest designs go as far back as 750 to 1200 BC.

What they can do is speedily produce a tartan-like design which the originator may proudly pass amongst relatives or colleagues who diplomatically murmur "very beautiful" just as they do when shown someone's new and hideously wrinkled baby. The result of the modern ease with which a tartan can be produced has resulted in many hundreds of chunky, pedestrian tartans that admirably prove that old adage of 'a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.'
So how can we avoid falling into that trap and sentencing future wearers to parading around in a garish fabric that would be better suited to covering the picnic table?

Tartan on graph paper

In modern times there are two main stages to tartan design - one is the rationale behind the design - the unique elements that dictate what colours you use and the number of lines and bands of each - and the other is how you place those to produce a pleasing pattern. In centuries past, tartan designers would often incorporate a form of rationale, perhaps taking the basic regimental tartan and adding a new coloured line to it to difference it from its 'parent' but that was about as far as the process went. Nowadays the great flexibility of tartan has awakened designers to the huge potential of incorporating some of a wide range of features that make that tartan a little like a time capsule that will prove of historical significance to present and future wearers.

One well-trodden and traditional path for modern district tartans has been "blue is for the sky and white is for the winter snow. Green is for the forests and farmlands. Red is for the blood of our ancestors . . . etc. That approach is now so overused that the path should be permanently closed for repair.

A new tartan can start with either a blank canvas or an existing traditional tartan that has some significance for the new one, or is one that the designer finds pleasing. Six colours are the conventional maximum for a tartan but there are many very attractive ones that have only two, so don't feel obliged to use six to take up your 'quota.'

Tartan designing on black paper.

What colours to use depends on what or who the tartan is for: is it for a body that has its own colours that should be incorporated . . . a company, a school, a sports team? Is it for a state, a province, a city that has its own official colours or its own distinctively coloured emblems? Is it for a church or cathedral that demands an ecclesiastical colour such as purple? The possibilities are endless. How to arrange those colours? Visually pleasing tartans comprise a mix of variously sized lines, bands and backgrounds and the only way of acquiring design skills is to study as many tartans as possible and earmark the ones that typify good design and analyse why . . . is it the positioning of blue next to green . . . is it the narrow white lines edging the red . . . is it those black tramlines (two parallel lines of the same colour close to each other) on the yellow?

Whilst talking of colours - don't get too hung up on the exact shades in your design - that can come later. With most simple computer design programmes you'll be offered a choice of three shades of each major colour - light, medium and dark. Use those to start with - once you've completed your design and are approaching the weaver, then is the time to start getting pernickety about shades. On request, most weavers will supply you with yarn samples that bracket the main shade that you've chosen, thus giving you more control over the final outcome.

Making the tartan personal to the user is of paramount importance - it'll be the story behind the tartan that will count for as much as the design itself. The wide range of elements is probably best typified by the following, each of which has been incorporated into tartan designs in recent times.

Medal ribbon won by a father.
Green and gold for an Australian bride teamed with blue and white for the Scottish groom.
Gold and red from the Chinese flag.
Colours from the family coat of arms.
A thin blue line for each of the family's two young boys.
Green for the father's farming interests.
Thirty threads of one colour and 10 threads of another to mark the wedding date of 30th October.
For a world organisation. Suitably spaced lines - red for the equator, yellow for the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and white for the poles.
White backgrounds for an Arctic and Antarctic tartan with black and orange in the latter to represent the King Penguins.

There are a few technicalities to take on board with tartan designing - we've spoken of the conventional six-colour maximum. Another one is to make all the thread counts even - tartan designs are formulated and recorded using the simple method of counting the threads - 4 red . . . 24 green . . . 2 black etc.
The origin of the even-thread counts still applies today with many older looms with shuttles - if the shuttle gets thrown from left to right, it has to come back again and it weaves a thread on each journey. Modern looms can handle odd numbers but to use them is unwise and shows either an ignorance of conventional design or an unwelcome affectation!

The pattern is called the 'sett' and its size is important when it comes to weaving. The conventional size is about 4 to 6 inches for skirts, kilts, vests etc. and smaller for neckties - about 2 inches. But like all rules, they can be broken but you need to talk with the weaver before you ask for anything too outlandish. Aim to have around 250 threads in your sett and you can't go far wrong.

In closing . . . don't complete your first design and rush off to a weaver. Save it and then copy it and play around with it. Reverse a couple of colours, thicken one line, reduce another . . . and keep going until you see something that appeals. Designers will sometimes produce a dozen or more versions of the same tartan until they see one that 'clicks'. Remember . . . You and yours may have to live with it for a long time.

Do take some time and read the other articles in this Tartan Design section - your finished tartan should be all the better for it!The Financial Times Tartan

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STA Coat of Arms

The Tartans Authority offers a specialist tartan design service and the following are some of the most notable of its commissions.

 

Abu Hassan Mohammed

Beartrap

Caithness Glass

Colin Montgomery

Florence - Firenze

G8 Summit, Gleneagles

Hohenzollern

Jewish

Lermontov (Russia)

Malawi

Marine Harvest

O2

Paul Burrell

Registers of Scotland

Royal College of Midwives

Russian Scottish

Ryder Cup 2006

Ryder Cup 2010

Ryder Cup 2014

Singapore St Andrew's Society

South Lanarkshire

Sri Lanka

Voluntary Service Aberdeen

West Highland Way

World Youth Congress

 

This is how the process works:

 

  • The STA conducts an in-depth interview with the client to identify all the design elements that can be incorporated into the new tartan - history in the making!
  • A minimum of three draft designs are prepared for the client and further discussion takes place to 'tweak' the chosen design.
  • Having discussed the proposed uses for the tartan and the fabrics and quantities required, the STA will then identify the weaver or weavers and introduce them to the client.
  • During the whole weaving and 'making up' process, the STA is on hand to help and advise in any way which facilitates the completion of the project and the initiation of bespoke items such as kilts etc.

If you are interested in this service then please contact us by e-mail or by telephone - +44 (0) 1764 655444

 


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