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Tartan Ferret

JDS explains

A descriptive specification by James D Scarlett MBE ( - 2007)

Despite attempts to give it some Gaelic meaning, the most probable origin of the word Tartan is in the French Tiretaine which became the Scots Tertane. The Larousse Nouveau Dictionnaire Encyclopedique, defines tiretaine as "Nom de plusieurs étoffes anciennes en laine pure ou mélangée". Credulity is tested by the assertion that it originated at Tire, in Babylon, but it seems more likely that the name derives from the French verb 'tirer' and relates to a woven, rather than knitted, cloth. The cloth woven by the Highlanders, for which we have no technical name, matches well to the general description of tiretaine.

From observation, it was fine and made from hard-spun wool with a markedly thicker weft than warp1, and woven in plain (or 2/2) twill which, for a given gauge of yarn, yields a cloth 50% heavier - and hence more weatherproof - than the simple 1/1 weave. A further corruption of the original name led to its being called Tartan but, at this stage, it did not need to have a pattern; well into the third decade of the nineteenth century merchants were ordering 'plain coloured tartan, without pattern', from the weavers, William Wilson & Son. Highland cloth was 'tiretaine' but it had a pattern, so they called it 'breacan', which means almost any kind of parti-colour, and gradually the two meanings converged, so that 'tartan' came to mean a particular kind of cloth with a particular kind of pattern; today, tartan is the pattern and it is applied to anything, not necessarily even a textile.

Tartan is a complex abstract art-form with a strong mathematical undertone, far removed from a simple check with a few lines of contrasting colours scattered over it. It appears in Bhutan, at archaeological sites in mountainous southern China and in Alpine central Europe, and in Scandinavia before reaching the Scottish Highlands where it reached its peak of development and gathered strength to reach out into the Lowlands and the rest of the world.

The characteristic tartan pattern is square and comprises a symmetrical arrangement of squares and rectangles around a central square; the warp and weft patterns being the same, each element appears four times, turning ninety degrees at each occurrence. Each weft stripe crosses every warp stripe; therefore, where a stripe crosses another of the same colour a block of plain colour results, whereas where it crosses one of another colour the result is an equal mixture of the two.

There is an insufficiency of material for safe diagnosis, but it appears probable that the main colours of 'aboriginal' Highland tartans were red, green and blue, the two former, lighter and brighter, supplying colour contrast and the latter, dark to very dark, taking care of light and shade. Such specimens as have survived show that precise shades varied according to locality; in particular, where a good black was easily available, dark blue was less used. Specimens from the period immediately before The '45 indicate that the sett of a typical Highland tartan of the 'aboriginal' type would have been red, with broad stripes of green and blue and a leavening of fine lines of the principal or contrasting colours. Examples of these can be seen in the Ross and Mackintosh groups of patterns and in the MacDonald patterns styled 'of the Isles' and 'of Sleat'.
With black and white (or, at any rate, undyed yarn) and the three primary colours used in varying strengths and in shades that depended, to some extent at least, on locality, the Highland dyers were able to produce the colours they needed; it may be supposed that the limited range was forced upon them, but the dyers were highly skilled and those few colours can be blended to make many shades that were not used, so it seems at least arguable that they knew where to stop.

The 'rules' for tartan that emerge from the above analysis are:-

a) The pattern is 'warp as weft' and consists of two half-setts which reverse along and across the web.
b) There are three main, 'background', colours of which two are bright and complementary and one dark and tending towards neutrality.
c) One of the bright colours should predominate.
d) For best effect the cloth should be woven in 2/2 Twill.

The transmutation of meaning from cloth to pattern, and particularly to a pattern denoting identity, allowed many anomalies to creep in and while a pattern conforming to these rules would be a tartan there are many patterns regarded as tartans that do not conform. Simple universal definitions have been attempted, but the final arbiter is the informed human eye. If it looks like tartan, it probably is a tartan.

1. The spinning wheel came late to the Highlands and spinning was, perforce, by the drop-spindle. A standard weight of whorl and a little practice can produce a very fine and consistent yarn, and cheapness and portability, given the availability of a large number of spinners, would have offset the labour-intensiveness of the spindle. There would inevitably, however, have been some inconsistency in the product and the best way to deal with this would have been to use the finest and best yarn for the warp and let the weft take care of any inequalities. I have seen a specimen in which different colours in the weft are of different thickness.

2. The unit of pattern, termed the Sett, is composed of two opposed Half-setts which repeat, reversing at each repetition, along and across the web, so that each half-sett is the mirror-image of its neighbours in all directions. In a significant proportion of tartans the half-setts do not reverse but join end to end, so that the half-sett becomes, in effect, a whole sett. In such cases, the elements occur only twice each and the 'central' square is in a corner. Rarely, the weft pattern differs from that of the warp on these occasions the strict rules cannot be followed.

3. The twill weave produces a diagonal ribbing in the cloth and the two colours appear as alternate lines and not as 'pepper and salt' as they would in a plain-woven cloth. The number of mixed colours increases rapidly out of proportion to number of 'starter' colours, in accordance with the formula M = ½[N2 - N] where M is the number of mixtures and N the number of 'starter' colours. Two 'starter' colours give one mixture and seven, the normal maximum, give twenty-one.

4. Red, blue and green have been recorded as the first colours to appear in all primitive art, so there may be some deep physiological or psychological reason for the predominance of these colours.

5. In theory, there are sound reasons why such a type of pattern-textile should have developed almost automatically in isolated, self-sufficient mountain communities. Such communities are unlikely to possess large dye-vats, and so cannot piece-dye woven cloth; such processes as Batik and tie-dye are unavailable. Even today, exact matches of successive dye batches are almost impossible to achieve and so a plain-coloured would be streaked. Stripes are the practical solution, since they use small quantities of a colour at a time and are interspersed with other colours, but the scope is limited, the result is not very exciting and the colours are degraded by a white basis; stripes across both brighten the colours and add many mixtures. From there on it is really only a matter of getting organised; the - now - geometric pattern reduces to a small unit, easier to remember and to follow in a world where little was written down, it is further simplified by being split into two equal halves and, with weft as warp, the weft pattern can be followed from the warp. And then there is the extra density of the twill-woven cloth, a real benefit to mountain people. All of which appears plausible, though no proof is likely to be forthcoming. For an extended explanation, see my Presidential Address to the Inverness Field Club, March 1999.

© 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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