Friday, May 5, 2017

A little about Tartan

Okay, so the Blog about the Tartan Day Parade gave me a lead into blogging about Tartan and its history. Many of you are familiar with tartan fabric (often called plaid in North America), but are you familiar with its history?

Shamrock Pipes and Thistle New Jersey
Tartan is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over—two under the warp, advancing one thread at each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.
Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were only associated with either regions or districts, rather than any specific Scottish clan. This was because like other materials, tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would usually only use the  natural dyes available in that area, as chemical dye production was non-existent and transportation of other dye materials across long distances was prohibitively expensive.

Bagpiper at the Tartan Day Parade, NYC
The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, chosen by the wearer's preference—in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they like in their clothing, without particular reference to propriety. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that many patterns were created and artificially associated with Scottish clans, families, or institutions who were (or wished to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage. The Victorians' penchant for ordered taxonomy and the new chemical dyes then available meant that the idea of specific patterns of bright colours, or "dress" tartans, could be created and applied to a faux-nostalgic view of Scottish history.

By the 19th century the Highland romantic revival, inspired by James Macpherson’s Ossian poems and the writings of Sir Walter Scott, led to wider interest, with clubs like the Celtic Society of Edinburgh welcoming Lowlanders. The pageantry invented for the 1822 visit f King George IV brought a sudden demand for tartan cloth and made it the national dress of the whole of Scotland, rather than just the Highlands and Islands, with the invention of many new clan-specific tartans to suit.
Clan McCleod Tartan

The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on 8 April 1815, when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all the clan chiefs each "be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as much of the Tartan of his Lordship's Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship's Arms." Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples.

Today tartan and "clan tartan" is an important part of a Scottish clan. Almost all Scottish clans have several tartans attributed to their name. Several clans have "official" tartans. Although it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief.
Black Watch tartan

Since the Victorian era, authorities on tartan have stated that there is an etiquette to wearing tartan, specifically tartan attributed to clans or families. This concept of the entitlement to certain tartans has led to the term of universal tartan, or free tartan, which describes tartan which can be worn by anyone. Traditional examples of such are Black Watch, Caledonian, Hunting Stewart, and Jacobite tartans. In the same line of opinion, some tartan attributed to the British Royal family are claimed by some to be "off limits" to non-royalty. Even so, there are no rules on who can, or cannot, wear a particular tartan. Note that some modern tartans are protected by trademark law, and the trademark proprietor can, in certain circumstances, prevent others from selling that tartan. The "Burberry Check" of the English fashion house, first designed in early 1920s, is an instantly recognisable tartan that is very well known around the world and is an example of a tartan that is protected.

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