Tartan Ferret

The Birth of Tartan

"The Celts have been weaving plaid (tartan) twills for three thousand years at least"

Until relatively recently, it was assumed by most historians, academicsand commentators that tartan was a Johnnie-come-lately . . . a modern invention by rapacious 19th & 20th century weavers and city merchants eager to swell their coffers. Rumours abounded of much earlier origins but it wasn't until American textile archaeologist Elizabeth Barber thoroughly investigated the Mummies of Ürümchi that the real truth emerged - backed up by impeccable archaeological proof.

We are greatly indebted to Elizabeth Wayland Barber's fascinating book "The Mummies of Ürümchi" (ISBN 0-393-04521-8) from which we have unashamedly borrowed parts of the text and diagrams. This book is a 'must' for anyone interested in textile history of this area and era.

A map showing Urumchi in China

When the earliest of these Central Asian corpses was laid to rest in the sands of the Tarim Basin, about 2000 b.c. or a little after, the pyramids of Egypt had already stood for half a millennium, but the best-known pharaohs, Ramesses II and "King Tut" (Tutankhamen), were rather more than five hundred years into the future. . . . . . the Greeks and Romans had not yet even arrived in Greece and Italy. . . . the Chinese had not yet learned to use metal but were already busy domesticating the precious silkworm that would one day lend its name to the most famous caravan route of Inner Asia, the Silk Road, along whose stretches the mummies have been found.

The mummies appeared to be neither Chinese nor Mongoloid in facial type; they looked, in fact, distinctively "Caucasian," with high-bridged noses, deep, round eye sockets, fair hair, and - on the men - heavy beards. . . . . historians would not particularly expect Chinese mummies in Central Asia in the second millennium BC but why not Mongoloid? Archaeologists and linguists alike had assumed that the Mongol-type peoples had "always" inhabited this entire area . . . . they also assumed central and northern Asia to be the general homeland of the Altaic linguistic group, which today includes Mongol and the various Turkic and Tungusic languages . . . to find Caucasians was a surprise.

The famous mummies of Egypt appear dry and shrivelled, blackened like discarded walnut husks, compared with these lifelike remains. Had the survivors specially treated these bodies to mummify them, or did their remarkable condition result only from natural desiccation?

Outside of Egypt you find a presentable piece of cloth in a prehistoric dig about as often as you find a ruby in your oatmeal. Yet here, and for the same reason as in Egypt, ancient textiles come out of the ground by the armful. Whereas the sophisticated Egyptians laboured to produce masses of plain white linen, the country folk of the Tarim Basin wove and bedecked themselves in garments of vivid color that has survived with astounding brightness.

Furthermore, the textiles from at least one of these inner Asian sites look astonishingly like the peculiar plaid twill cloths found in the only place in Europe where ancient perishables had survived well, in the Bronze Age salt mines at Hallstatt and Hallein, in the Alps above Salzburg in Upper Austria. The Austrian plaid twills had been woven by ancestors of the Celts.

The bright colours had amazed us and delighted us . . . But the feel of the textiles astounded us even more. Still so supple. It was like handling fabrics from one or two hundred years ago, and yet someone had woven them three thousand years back.

The town of Hami, as the Chinese call it, lies three hundred miles east of Urumchi. Not far from Hami, at a place called Qizilchoqa (Red Hillock), archaeologists in 1979 found an ancient cemetery. Like the mummies of Urumchi, the mummies found there had Caucasoid features, the men generally having light brown or blond hair, while the women had long braids. Their cloth, however, had a look all of its own, radically different from that of Cherchen and Loulan (areas in Urumchi).

The dominant weave at Qizilchoqa proved to be normal diagonal twill and the chief decoration was plaid - that is wide and narrow color stripes in both warp and weft, as in the woolen twill material of a Scottish kilt. And there lay the big surprise. The Gaelic-speaking Scots, along with the Irish, Welsh and Bretons, belong to the Celtic branch of Indo-European; and the Indo-European family tree, when organised by dialect similarity rather than modern geography shows Tokharian on the branch next to Celtic.


Celtic loom

Some of the plaids from Qizilchoqa contain more than two colors also. When Victor Mair visited the excavation site with Wang Binghua, the excavator, in 1991, Wang stuffed a fragment of a plaid into Victor's pocket and told him to take it home and study it. That plaid, a typical diagonal twill consists mostly of a milk-chocolate-colored ground with narrow stripes of light blue and white breaking up the surface into a very attractive plaid. Not only does this woolen plaid twill look like Scottish tartan, but it also has the same weight, feel, and initial thickness as kilt cloth.

Wang Binghua's wife, Wang Luli, also published a piece of plaid twill: a large portion of some sort of vest. Her photograph shows broad stripes of purply-brown thread with the plaid formed by pinstripes in no fewer than five other colors: light and dark blue, red, white, and black. To make the vest, the tailor joined pieces of this stuff together with pale blue yarn, edged the vest with two narrow plaited cords, and added a pair of buttons covered with the same pale blue yarn. That sample has been rewoven in modern times and offers a remarkably sophisticated design that is the equal of many asymmetric tartans of the 20th century.

So . . . Hami plaids might have as many as six colors, therein resembling the modern Scottish rather than the ancient Hallstatt way of doing things and the regular combination of plaids and twills in the same cloth and the similar play of wides and narrows in the plaids move us into a bolder zone where it's harder to imagine the sum total as accidental.

In conclusion, the vast majority of historians have assumed that the idea of plaids (tartans) was relatively new to Scotland in the seventeenth century. Archaeology tells a different story. "The Celts have been weaving plaid twills (tartans) for three thousand years at least."

Many historians have assumed that the idea of plaids (tartans) was relatively new to Scotland in the seventeenth century. Archaeology tells a different story. The Celts have been weaving plaid twills (tartans) for three thousand years at least."

For a European perspective on the Celts and their weaving of tartan - see the article Celts in this History section.


Dressed to Kilt photos Lloyd Bishop







The Urumchi area.





The simple blue white & beige tartan from Qizilchoqa.



The sophisticated six-colour tartan from Qizilchoqa.



















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