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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.