Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Brief Introduction to My Tartan Obsession

After making my tartan silk 1860s ballgown and tartan drawers, I thought I had gotten the obsession out of my system.  I haven't.  Instead I am just embracing the fact that as this rate I will have at least one or two plaid things from every period of the 19th century that I sew.

Why do I say I will have plaid things and not tartan? Budget, mostly.  While all tartans are plaids, not all plaids are tartans.  As I mentioned in my Princess Merida post, the term "plaid" originally referred to a large piece of woven fabric (like a blanket) that could be worn in several ways by men and women--its most famous use, as a "belted plaid," evolved into what we now know as a kilt.  For the purpose of this post, though, when I use the word plaid I mean the pattern of interlocking stripes common in the modern vernacular.

According to Wikipedia (somewhere every history teacher I've ever had is shuddering at this citation), the term plaid (to describe a pattern) can refer to:
and Madras
in addition to tartans.  I don't know enough about any of those fabrics to say much more about them, but we would refer to all of them as plaid patterns.  Modern tartan (by which I mean 19th century and on) has a particular significance based on its thread count and colors.  Tartan is a woven fabric with interlocking stripes in both the warp and weft of the cloth, meaning there are lines that run both vertically and horizontally through the fabric; the particular pattern of lines is known as the sett.  Tartan as a particular pattern originated in Scotland, and was so associated with the Jacobite uprising that after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden the wearing of Highland dress (including tartan) was made illegal by the British government.

John Drummond, 4th titular Duke of Perth, 1714-1747. Jacobite. 1739, via Scottish National Gallery

detail of the Jacobite forces from the painting An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745 by David Morier, 1746
The act was repealed in 1782 and around the same time was the rise of the first commercial tartan weavers.  Wilsons of Bannockburn, one of these 'early weavers,' is an important resource due to their publication of the 1819 Key Pattern Book, which includes approximately 200-250 tartans in production in the first two decades of the 19th century.

sett for the Baillie (William Wilson) tartan, as recorded in the 1819 Key Pattern Book
 At this point under half (about 100) of the tartan setts listed in the Key Pattern Book were named--the rest were just numbered.  While this does not mean that there was no association with the patterns and various groups (the Royal Company of Archers wore a specific tartan as early as the 17-teens), it wasn't as structured as it is today, and those associations were not recorded in the weavers' specifications.

recorded in the 1819 KPB as "No.2/64 or Aberc." and named for Sir Abercrombie in the early 19th c.
Today, the short answer to "what makes something a tartan rather than a plaid?" is that tartans are registered with The Scottish Register of Tartans, a governmental body responsible for registering new tartans and maintaining a database and archive "to protect, promote, and preserve tartan."  While there are many plaid patterns--and some even look like tartan--it isn't really a tartan if it isn't registered...right?

Sort of.  Whether or not someone has gone through the registration process and paid the fee, the Register has specifications for what makes a plaid a tartan.  According to the website:

The basis of any tartan is a simple two-colour check to which the designer adds over-checks, bands and stripes in contrasting colours. These should be arranged to result in a balanced and harmonious pattern. 

Where two stripes of the same colour cross, a block of solid colour is formed. Where different colours cross, the two colours are mixed in equal proportions to create a new colour. Ideally, neither colour should 'swamp' the other. The two together should make a new intermediate shade. 

A tartan pattern is a geometric design, made up of blocks of solid colour which join on the diagonal, radiating across the fabric like spokes, and with each block of colour surrounded by blocks of mixed colours. The blocks form a pattern, reflected or repeated many times across both the warp and weft of the cloth.

The total number of colours in a tartan (including mixtures) increases rapidly as the number of colours increases: two colours make a total of three colours including mixtures; six base colours make a total of twenty-one including mixtures. The more colours that are used therefore, the more complicated the pattern becomes.

Traditionally a maximum of six colours were used in tartan - and many professional designers still stick to this limit to avoid over-complicating the design.

So there you have it.  Beginning in about the 1820s and reaching its height during the mid 19th century, the concept of a clan tartan (or a tartan associated with other specific things) became quite popular.  Today you can search the Scottish Registry of Tartans website to see clan tartans, and many others--did you know that many US states have tartans?  While created in 2003 and therefore a pattern I could never actually use (unless I have a limitless budget and can custom order a mini-kilt), I quite like the Massachusetts "Bay State" tartan.

the MA tartan: blue for the Atlantic Ocean, green for Boston, Worcester, and Berkshire hills/mountains, tan for the beaches on the North Shore and Cape Cod/the islands, red for the apple and cranberry harvests
Part of the reason I am so interested in tartan as a fashion trend in the 19th century is that there is so much history associated with it.  When I look at fashion plates from various periods with plaid dresses, I want to know what tartans they might have used--even if I will probably have to settle for something in the right color family that is easily available.  

While this post brushed over a lot of important aspects of tartan, hopefully it will be a helpful reference as I continue posting!  If you'd like to learn more, here are a few sites I recommend:

1 comment:

  1. Excellent work. Have you seen the film Culloden? It does an excellent job of explaining just how miserable life around 1745 was for the Scots. The movie goes into the whole outlawing the Tartan issue.