design & fashion

{history of tartan & plaid}


{history of tartan & plaid}

Couldn’t very well return from a beautiful trip to Scotland without writing about tartan and plaid . . .

{history of tartan & plaid}

Tartan is associated the world over with the kilt, the national dress of Scotland, and the history of both goes hand in hand.

Tartan is a material that can be woven from many colours and was originally a sort of uniform for distinguishing the many clans in the Highlands and islands of Scotland and can be traced as far back as the middle of the 5th Century to Ireland, where the Scots originated.

The very first form of tartan is nothing like its modern day counterpart, being a type of shirt that ended just above the knee, known as léine in Irish Gaelic. It is generally accepted that it was made of linen, and although the earliest references to this garment describe it as light-coloured, it may have been of a darker yellow shade which led to the English describing it as a saffron shirt.

In later times, coloured stripes were incorporated into the léine to indicate the rank of the wearer–the first attempts at what is now known as tartan. For instance, a High King wore seven stripes, one of these being purple, the colour of royalty.

With the new abundance of a growing number of sheep herds in the land, the plaid grew from being little better than a rug to a long piece of material between 12 and 15 feet in length, which the Highlanders would pleat round their waists in folds and pull over their heads like a hood and use as a blanket at night.

By 1730 the patterns had evolved from simple stripes and patterns into what today would be called tartan, from the French word tartaine.

After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, the English Army routed the Highlands, destroying the Highlanders’ way of life, banning clan tartans and destroying cloth-making equipment, including sett-sticks. Yet even at their lowest ebb, the Highlanders rebelled, wearing trousers of their tartan, subtly woven.

Football (soccer) teams, even countries have commissioned their own tartan, emphasising the importance and emotion that the people of Scotland attach to tartan and the sense of kinship that has been an integral part of Scottish culture.

{images: 1+2: Holt’s Women’s Fall 2007; rest: Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2008 RTW via; bottom, Burrberry; copy: special thanks to the BBC}
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6 Notes
  • I know there were no “Clan Tartan Plaids” until Wilson & Sons mass produced identical plaids decades after the Jacobite risings – Giving them numbers, not names, not clans, not cities or regions – numbers.
    However, I can’t locate the proof either way of a admittedly British memory, and was wondering if you or your readers knew the truth of the matter?
    I seem to remember a lot of bets were won regarding the origin of Scottish Tartans – as Wilson & Son’s plaids became – in that they were DESIGNED by English designers – those in the business long before Wilson got his machinery. Who did design the first Wilson- Clan Tartans?

  • Interesting post and great pics. I’ve started a new blog called The Plaid Blog – check it out at Will be updating on a regular basis with everything plaid! ~Amy

  • Of course, Perfect Bound, link away.

  • I did a little post on plaid today which now pales in comparison to this. I must link to your post!

  • Wow, Crafty Weasel, I can honestly say that that’s the longest comment anyone has ever left me :) Thanks for stopping by and welcome to my site! I agree with you about Burberry (had no idea it was purchased by a Japanese company?) It was better before the pattern became so ubiquitous–that’s the very reason why I included it in this post–because when people think about plaid or tartan, most automatically think about Burberry. I really enjoyed reading about the history of the company though–thanks! (By the way, I’m a complete Anglophile as well!)

  • Being an aglophile, I love most things tartan – I particularly used to love Burberry’s London check (the famous check in the lining of their raincoats) – when it was made in England and it was Burberry’s of London.

    Sadly things went downhill for them in the 90’s and they were bought by a Japanese company (I think) that “revived the brand”. All of a sudden, it’s just Burberry and the check is all over the place and has become somewhat ghetooish. Most pieces are also made in China and elsewhere in Asia. So much for the British craftsmanship it once stood for…

    The original check has Saint George on a horse with the English flag and the coloured strip is red (for the flag) – now it’s burgundy and it’s sort of… not the same anymore… :-(

    Great post – and great blog – your style is very classy! :-)

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