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?
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
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.'
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
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
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
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
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!