Colours & Dyeing
Largely based on the excellent piece by Dr. Philip D. Smith
Jnr in his publication Tartan for Me!
It's important right from the start to distinguish between
colours and shades. In any particular traditional tartan, different
weavers must use the same colours but can use
different shades - a fact which contributes greatly to the
aesthetic diversity of tartan and its great popularity. All weavers
have their own distinctive colour palettes, so if looking to match
a particular tartan, you can't just order it by name from any
weaver and assume that it will match what you have: you must
identify which weaver produced it which is usually done by looking
at woven samples in a tartan shop.
Any tartan can be woven in large or small scale in any of the
many shade possibilities. These variations may appear visually to
be very different but are all correct representations of the same
tartan. As long as the shades of colour fall within the broad
spectrum specified, it's the pattern (or sett as it is correctly
called) and not the width of that sett or the shade of colour which
identifies the tartan. The so-called Smith Ancient and Smith Modern
tartans are the same, simply different shades of the conventional
colours associated with that tartan.
First time buyers are often misled by the use of adjectives such
as old, ancient, modern, reproduction, muted and
weathered. Quite logically they will assume that names
such as ancient and modern refer to the age of
the tartan in question. Not necessarily so! Conventionally, if
either word appears after the tartan name (Smith Ancient
or Smith Modern) it means that it has been woven using the weaver's
own ancient or modern colour palette. See below
for an explanation of palette names.
The brighter, more intense, darker shades or hues made possible by
the new chemical dyes used after 1855. Many of these are so dark
that is sometimes impossible to distinguish between black, green
and blue which often shrouds the beauty of the chosen colours and
the shades that different colours create when crossing each other.
This explains why the ancient palette has become so
The softer shades which show the pattern better and became popular
in the 1950's and '60's. Reds tend more to be orange in this
palette. These attempt to imitate the colours of natural dyes used
before 1860. Thos old dyes are often referred to as vegetable dyes
which isn't quite right. Although most of them were derived from
vegetable matter, some of them came from animals and minerals.
Like weathered, this palette is in imitation of tartan long
exposed to sun and rain.
A name copyrighted by Border weavers D C Dalgliesh in which the
colours simulate those of tartan which may have been buried in a
bog for a lengthy period. The effect of this can best be seen in
the Ulster tartan (which was found in a bog) where two
versions are woven today - the imagined original brightly coloured
one and then the post-bog version. Both are extremely popular.
Blues and greens are usually woven as grey and brown.
This palette simulates the result of a tartan when exposed to the
elements for a long time.
The absence of any colour descriptor at all, implies "modern"
Having dealt with the descriptors appesring after the
tartan name, what about the ones appearing before it? If
the descriptive ancient or modern appears
before the tartan name (Ancient Smith, Modern Smith) it
does refers to the age of the design . . . but beware . .
.not everyone is au fait with that convention. To further confuse,
there are a small number of tartans which research has found to be
older than the pattern usually worn in modern times by the clan or
family. Here the term Old may well be used as in Old
Stewart which is genuinely older than other "Stewart" tartans.
If you are genuinely confused (or confused genuinely) . . .
don't worry . . . time is a great healer and all will become
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