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Tartan Ferret

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.

Confusing terms.
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 popular.

Logan Modern

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.

Logan Ancient

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" colours

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 clear!

The Ulster tartan in modern colours.




The Ulster tartan after about 400 years in an Irish bog.

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