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Tartan Ferret

Understanding Thread Counts

Fraser of Boblainy threads

All woven fabrics are made up of the warp - the threads that are stretched out lengthways on the loom - and the weft,Fraser of Boblainy the threads that are interwoven with the warp at right angles to it and if we look at a conventional tartan, such as this 18th century one called Fraser of Boblainy, we notice that the pattern is the same in both directions.

This is a characteristic of the great majority of tartans but we can simplify our explanation if we separate the warp from the weft as we have done in the diagrams below. The first one is the warp which is the collection of threads that stretch out in front of the weaver and allow us to easily see how the pattern repeats itself across the width of the warp. That pattern or sett can be written down in terms of the numbers and colours of threads included. If we start from the blue line on the left we would write 4 blue, 56 red, 28 green, 28 blue, 4 red, 28 blue, 28 green and so on.

You might notice that when we get to the 4 red, the pattern flips over - mirrors itself - and goes backwards - 28 blue 28 green, 56 red, 4 blue and we're back to wheFraser of Boblainy warpre we started. That's what we call
the sett, the basic 'tile' that repeats itself across the width and along the length of the tartan. That's what's known as a symmetrical tartan and the vast majority of tartans are in that category.

The points at which at the sett mirrors itself are known as the pivots and there are always two pivots in a symmetrical tartan. The pivots in this tartan are 4 blue and 4 red.

If you regard the sett as an individual wall tile, then the whole tartan is the equivalent of you tiling your kitchen wall with tartan tiles - now there's an interesting commercial opportunity for someone!


This system of counting the threads enables us to record the pattern of a tartan in a very simple fashion. We choose one of the pivot points and record the threads until we reach the second pivot point: 4 blue, 56 red, 28 green, 28 blue, 4 red. That's what's known as a half sett with full count at the pivots. Designers and weavers would shorten the count and write it like this B/4 R56 G28 B28 R/4. The oblique stroke in B/4 and R/4 indicates that those are the pivots.

Fraser of Boblainy weft

It doesn't matter which pivot we start with and if we had chosen the red then the count would have read R/4 B28 G28 R56 B/4 which you will notice gives you the same pattern as if you had used the blue!

Now let's have a look at the weft - the pattern formed by the flying shuttles (in traditional looms) interweaving their yarn with the warp threads. In this case we have three shuttles, one for each colour. Starting with the red shuttle, it would travel from left to right and back again weaving two red threads into the sett. To produce our thread count of 4 red it would do that twice. Then the blue shuttle would fly out and back 14 times (14 x 2 = 28 blue threads), then the green shuttle would make 14 journeys and then back to the red which, this time would make 28 journeys (28 x 2 = 56 red).

The fact that if the shuttle goes out, it must come back, has resulted in all traditional tartans having even-numbered threadcounts and this is something that some amateur designers (and even some professional ones!) ignore. The former because of lack of knowledge and the latter because modern high speed looms can handle odd-numbered threads. However . . . that's really no excuse for using odd numbers and we advise sticking to the tradition, even if it's not strictly necessaary in all cases.

We ought to mention some of the little vagaries that appear in thread counts. There are three colours where, if we used their initial letters as we've done above with red, blue and green, we'd cause great confusion and the weavers would end up with some strange results.

Those three colours are Black, Brown and Grey but we've already allocated those initial letters to other colurs (Blue and Green) so each has a code that avoids that problem: Black becomes 'K'; Brown becomes 'T' for tan and Grey becomes 'N' for neutral.

One further simple way of denoting colours a little more accurately is the use of 'L' for light and 'D' for dark in front of the standard letter for each colour. 'G' on its own means that it's the medium shade. 'LG' denotes light green and 'DG' denotes dark green.

There is no standard colour palette in the tartan industry which does cause a lot of head-scratching at times when designers come up with fancy names for colours and we have to try and guess what part of the spectrum accommodates Mediterranean Mist, Autumnal Green or Spring Breeze! The use of technical colour formals such as RGB usually solves the problem but we won't go into those uncharted areas at this stage.

Thread count variations

An important point to remember is that the thread count of a tartan is not a inviolable formula for all weavings or other productions of that tartan. The thread count is merely the documenting of the proportions of each colour in that tartan. The average-sized sett for a kilt in modern times is 5 to 6 inches (12 - 15 cms) which gives around 250 threads per sett using a medium weight wool yarn. If of course you were using a much thinner yarn such as silk then that thread count could multiply by three or four. Conversely, if you were a home-weaver using a very chunky yarn, then the count would drop considerably to give the equivalent sett size.The sett size can also change depending upon the use of the finished design. If it's for a shirt then it might drop down to one or two inches (2.5 - 5 cms)., if it was to be projected onto the side of a building then it might jump up to around three or six feet (1 to 2 metres). Weavers also may differ in the exact thread count that they use for a variety of reasons but the overall proportions will always stay the same.


Seeing the thread count

Thread counts are usually impossible to count with the naked eye and a good magnifying glass is what is needed. The fabric industry tends to use what are a called linen testers that have a magnification of 5 up to 10. These can be bought in any good art store or on-line by just Googling 'linen tester'.


Doing it by eye.

Industry experts and tartan designers develop the ability to record theapproximate thread count of a tartan with the naked eye without actually counting the threads and many previously unknown tartans have been 'captured' in that way. It's not recommended for any purpose other than documenting the sample and efforts are always made to procure a woven sample or close-up photograph of the tartan in question.

Linen tester

Thread counts kept by The Lord Lyon

As you may have read on the left, the Lord Lyon makes a note of thread counts of specific tartans when requested - usually by a Clan Chief - but that count should not be regarded as sacrosanct but just an indication of the proportions of that specific tartan.


Counting tips.
When looking at a tartan you'll quickly realise that the shades vary depending upon which colour is crossing which - this is one of the unique aesthetic attractions of tartan. True colours only occur when the same colours cross each other vertically and horizontally. The result of this is that the pure colours can never be side by side and always touch each other on the diagonals. If you're going to undertake the counting of threads, try first on the solid blocks and if that proves too difficult try where there is a mix of colours - hairy yarns make counting difficult at times as do fabrics that have become worn or matted.


© 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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