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Folklife Festival 2003 > Scotland > Textiles > Tartan: A History
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Plaid or "tartan" fabrics have been identified with Celtic peoples since prehistoric times. Scottish archaeologists have discovered a fragment of checked cloth -- in a pattern today known as "Shepherd Plaid"-- woven in the 3rd century C.E. The word "tartan" probably comes from tiretaine - a 16th-century French term for "linsey-woolsey," a half-wool, half-linen fabric.

Although writers from Roman times to the Renaissance mentioned that Highland Scots wore striped cloaks of many colors, relatively little is known about tartan before 1700. There seem to have been many distinct patterns, but the association of particular patterns with individual clans, families, or regions did not develop fully until the early 19th century.

After the failure of the last Jacobite Rising in 1746 (to restore Scotland's Stuart family, who had ruled Great Britain for most of the 17th century, to the throne), tartan cloth and kilts - the traditional Highland man's garment made from tartan - were banned by the British government, except for those worn by gentry, women, and soldiers serving in the British Army's Highland Regiments. The ban was lifted in 1782, and by the 1790s, a renewed interest in Highland culture and the victories of Highland Regiments in the Napoleonic Wars made tartan (and kilts) fashionable throughout Europe. Their success was assured in 1822 by King George IV, the first reigning British monarch to visit Scotland in 150 years, who wore a tartan kilt while in Edinburgh.

Tartan was originally woven on home looms, and the wool used was dyed using local plants. The introduction of commercially traded dyes around 1600 greatly expanded the range and intensity of the colors used in tartan. (Cochineal for vivid reds and indigo for blues were particularly popular.)

By the 1780s, tartan was being woven in larger, technologically advanced mills, such as Wilsons of Bannockburn. This historically important firm began to meet a growing market demand by standardizing tartan colors and patterns, and designing new tartans. To stimulate sales, it also began naming tartans after towns, districts, and families.

Today, there are more than 3,500 named tartans, and new ones are being designed almost daily (including the new Smithsonian Tartan designed for the Festival by Lochcarron of Scotland). The introduction of tartan-designing computer software has inspired even amateurs to devise new patterns. This makes recording and authenticating patterns challenging for the two bodies concerned with Scotland's tartan heritage: the Scottish Tartans Authority and the Scottish Tartan Society.

Credit: The Smithsonian Institution thanks Lochcarron of Scotland for their assistance with and support of this portion of the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Coming to the Festival...
Lochcarron of Scotland, Waverley Mill (Galashiels, Scottish Borders)

—Founded in the 1930s, Lochcarron is a family business owned by Alistair Buchan, the fourth of five generations of weavers. His company is a major producer of both tartan and cashmere for traditional markets as well as trendier firms, e.g., Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garcons. Buchan is also the Chair of the Tartan Authority and extremely knowledgeable about the history of tartan as well as the traditions related to tartan. Four Lochcarron employees will come to the Festival to demonstrate tartan designing, manufacturing, and finishing and also talk about the history and culture of the Borders.

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