What is a Tartan?

What is a Tartan?

You may be asking yourself, what is a tartan? That is not an easy question to answer. When people are referring to a tartan, they could be talking about many different things.

They could be talking about a particular type of clothing or a cultural style. The real definition of a tartan is not so easy to pin down. 

One thing is for sure, though; tartans are firmly ingrained in Scottish culture. A tartan is a pattern made up of crisscrossed vertical and horizontal bands of multiple colors. Originally made from woven wool, the tartans of today are made up of many different materials. 

People often mistake tartan for plaid, most notably in the US. But that comparison is not entirely accurate. 

For those of us at The Celtic Croft, tartan is practically a way of life. We are going to introduce you to this terrific textile here briefly. Once we finish with that, we would like to encourage you to visit our shop to check out some tartans for yourself.

We hope you will find many ways to incorporate it into your life and wardrobe. 

tartan folded

What is a Tartan?

Tartan is a beautiful and versatile textile design. It is capable of evoking strong, heartfelt links to your ancestral past. Tartan has been around for centuries. It is an ever-changing and evolving expression of national pride. 

True tartan enthusiasts are often traditionalists. They most likely believe that, in most cases, old is better than new. 

There are two schools of thought in the design world when it comes to tartan. The tartan academics, or traditionalists, work with inspiration and designs from the past. They have a vast wealth of knowledge concerning the history of tartans, and they strive to preserve the standards of the past. 

The second group is more modern-minded. They are also more open-minded and not so bound to the past. They will let their creativity and artistic flair lead them down previously unexplored tartan paths. 

The trick is to find a way to marry these two worlds. Embrace the past, but don’t drown in it. Funny how often that sentiment is true, huh?

Fun fact; Did you know that the Apollo 12 lunar module pilot, Alan L. Bean, brought a half yard of MacBean tartan on his 1969 round trip to the moon? Also, most police and military forces in the US have their own tartan design. Many of the stories of these designs are quite interesting; we encourage you to look it up!

great kilt

Wearing Tartan Colors

Tartan designs were prominent in the make-up of traditional Scottish dress. Some of these include:

The earliest tartans were simple, made up of perhaps only two or three colors. In those early days, people hand-made the dye from plants, roots, berries, or trees from a clan’s specific area. Its geographical location heavily influenced a clan’s tartan identity.

After the introduction of chemical dyes, tartans began to take on more elaborate patterns of more vivid colors. Marriages between clans led to the evolution of original clan tartans. The newly formed clan would combine and rework their old family clans to make something new. 

folded tartan

Who Wears a Tartan?

Both men and women wear tartans. Some tartans get their names from how they are worn. These types of tartan are-

  • Clan tartans- each clan has their own, for general use by the people of the clan
  • Dress tartan- originally made to be worn by the women of the clan, usually on a white background
  • Mourning tartans- typically made out of black and white fabric, to be worn in times of mourning and sorrow
  • Hunting tartans- worn for sport and dark in color, most useful for clans who had brightly colored tartans
  • Chief’s tartans- only to be worn by the chief and his family as a matter of distinction

Tartan has had an extraordinary history. It was exported south for thousands of years. It was even worn by royals as early as the 15th century. 

In the mid-1700s, when the British government was trying to squash the rebelling clans and draw them under British rule, clan tartans were outlawed. It was illegal to carry weapons or wear tartans. If you are familiar with the show Outlander, you know what we are talking about.

Unfortunately, this legal action seems to have had the desired effect. It took almost one hundred years for tartan to make a comeback. Because so much was lost to the ages, tailors of the day had to re-invent many of the original clan tartans. 

Tartans now must be registered in the Registers at Lyon Cout. 

woman in tartan

How are Tartans Worn?

There are almost as many ways to wear tartan as there are tartan patterns. You can wear a tartan sash, but the most recognizable way tartan is worn is a kilt. 

For Scots, tartan is not a uniform, nor is it formal attire. The tartan is not an alternative to pants or trousers. We should recognize the tartan as the ever-changing and evolving expression of fashion that it is. Just try not to offend with your choices. 

Here are a few tips:

  • Stockings, or hose, should not be white. They should blend in with your tartan. If you are dressing up, black is best.
  • The longest your kilt should reach is the top of your knee. 
  • Don’t wear feathers in your hat, unless you have earned that distinction.
  • Traditionally, kilts should be worn commando!

tartan folded

We have barely even scratched the surface of the significance that tartan holds in the hearts of the Scottish people. If you are interested in learning more, there is a wealth of knowledge available to you. 

For more practical knowledge, check out our extensive stock of Scottish garb for purchase or rent. We at the Celtic Croft stand behind our product and our promise. Come see for yourself.