Tartan can initially appear complex in design but is based on a simple concept - a pattern of stripes which repeats in both a horizontal and verticle direction - in weaving terms the 'warp' and the 'weft'. A sequence of stripes (the sett) starting at one edge is repeated but in reverse order round a 'pivot' point. The sett reverses again and repeats round a second pivot point - see diagram 'A'. This process continues for the width of the material in question. The same sett and mirroring sequence occurs in the weft - diagram 'B' - continuing for the entire length of the material. The resulting combination of warp and weft is the tartan - diagram 'C'. (Note that the pivots themselves are not doubled in the mirroring process).
Illustrations by Don Pottinger
Some tartans - known as 'asymetrical' or 'non mirrored' do not reverse the sequence at the pivot points but simply repeat the sett in the same sequence. A very small number of tartans have different thread counts for the warp and the weft.
A description of a tartan can be written in a format known as the 'thread count' or the 'sett'. This identifies the colour and width of the stripes between two pivot points and incorporates the same information for the pivot points themselves. It takes the form of e.g. B16, LG8, K4, G24, K6 - reading the sequence from the left. The outside threads (B16 and K6 in the example given) are the pivot points. The colour is determined by a one to three letter shorthand - 'K' for example is black, 'B' is blue, 'LG' is light green and so on. The number after the letter is the proportional measurement - it does not matter what unit of measurement is used as the actual tartan pattern will remain the same - reflecting the abstract nature of tartan design. Traditionally the number refers to the number of threads used to set the loom but this can of course vary depending on the type and weight of thread used - modern tartan fabric can be made from silk, wool, cotton, poly-viscose, etc. In addition tartan designs are now used extensively on non-woven materials - paper, plastics, packaging, wall coverings, etc. although some claim that a tartan needs to be woven before it can be considered a 'true' tartan.
The original origin of tartan is largely unknown. It is believed that early celtic weavers in Ireland and Scotland and Europe (and perhaps Scandinavia) developed very basic striped cloths using yarn coloured with vegetable dyes - these were of simple design and the colours quite muted by today\'s standards. An early sample of this type of tartan, believed to be from the third century AD, was found buried near Falkirk. It wasn't until the sixteenth century that more sophisticated patterns became commonplace. The early Scottish designs were associated with regions in Scotland and would use dyes made from locally available plants and berries. In the seventeenth century some clans began using tartan as a form of identity - in a skirmish with an enemy it enabled friend or foe to be easily identified. Around this time and for the same reason tartan was adopted by the military and highland regiments had their own unique tartans. Following the battle of Culloden (1745) the wearing of tartan was banned (except for regiments) until 1782.
When people think of the tartan today most think of the colourful pattern of the cloth as worn by Scottish clan members. Many of the current clan tartans are, however, of quite recent design many dating from just the 19th century. It was only with development of dying processes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the vibrant colouring of modern tartans became possible.
It was during the early part of the nineteenth century that some of the larger mills in Scotland developed the commercial potential of tartan. Pattern books of many different designs were put together by the mills and tartans were sold to many regiments, clans, companies, organisations and individuals during this period. It has even been told that brightly coloured tartans were sold to tea plantation owners to enable them to dress slave workers in an immediately identifiable uniform.
Today most clans have their own tartan - some clans have many designs from 'formal' patterns through to 'dress' tartans. Dress tartans, popular for dances and social gatherings, are often based on the main design but incorporate lighter colours and perhaps white stripes making them brighter in appearance. Many companies have commissioned a tartan as part of their corporate identity - this includes banks, airlines and large international companies. In the USA and Canada many cities have their own tartan - this acknowledging the Scottish ancestory of many of the founders and residents. Tartan design is now used in many other areas - fashion, furnishings, packaging. It is unique in that even a small scrap ot tartan, the exact pattern perhaps never seen before by the viewer, is immediately associated with Scotland.
The Scottish Government in 2007 set up, through National Archives, the Scottish Register of Tartans to record patterns and formally acknowledge the importance of tartan to Scottish identity.
The complex processes and the skills involved, to produce Lochcarron of Scotland's world renowned fabrics and accessories.
At Lochcarron, like most other modern mills, the weaving process starts with the delivery of the required yarn. The yarns used in the mill are spun from raw material sourced throughout the world. Cashmere from China and Scotland, silk from China and the Far East, wool from Australia, New Zealand, England and Scotland, mohair from South Africa, The Americas and the Far East, and cotton from Egypt.
Once unpacked, the yarn is wound onto a spring or cheese to the required length ready for dyeing. The cheeses are loaded into a dyeing tank by slipping them over perforated tubes after which the lid of the tank is clamped down tight. The tank is then filled with water. Initially the water temperature is 40° C but it is then brought up to boiling point for 45 minutes and left for a further 30-60 minutes (30 minutes for light colours and 60 minutes for dark colours). The dye is forced up the perforated tube, out through the holes into the centre of the cheeses and then outwards through the yarn wound on to the cheese, dying it thoroughly.
The dyes are in powder form and other chemicals such as acids are used for the fixing of the colour (to stop it washing out) and a levelling agent is added to prevent the dyeing taking place too quickly. Once dyed, the cheeses are rinsed in the tank with cold water and when that runs clear, the cheeses are removed, spun dried, then air dried for 8 hours.
The dyed yarn on the cheeses is transferred to the yarn store to be wound onto cones to the required length, ready for the warper, with the weft being wound onto pirns (the pirns fit inside the shuttle). Many of the more popular yarn qualities are kept in stock in order to shorten production times.
The coloured yarns on the cones are now arranged on the bank or creel using the information set out for the warper on the ticket for that particular tartan. The warp threads are drawn from the bank through a wire caulm and then drawn through a reed. The threads are then tied, looped and hooked onto a pin on the Warp Mill. The Warp Mill revolves and the warp threads are wound round the Warp Mill. Once the desired length is reached, which is anything from 5 to 500 ells\' (an ell is 45\") the threads are cut, then tucked away, the reed turned over (the warp threads that were on the left hand side of the reed, are now on the right side of the reed and the whole process repeated until the width is gained, anything from 36 inches to 82 inches wide. So the warp is made up in stripes of threads and held together by tension.
The Scottish warp is warped from right to left, and the English from left to right.When the warp is completed it is wound onto a beam (spool). The warp on the beam is ready to be drawn in the weaving shed.
Most warps are knotted on to warp threads already in the Loom, however some have to be drawn by hand. This is done by drawing the threads one at a time through the healds or heddles which are fine wires with eyelets in the middle which are held together in a frame called a shaft.Once drawn through the healds in the required number of shafts, the threads are fed through the splits on the reed. Now the beam, warp, shafts and reed are ready for the loom.Looming...The following steps describe the intricate procedure in shuttle weaving.
The lifting and dropping of the shafts allows the threads to be lifted and lowered, forming a shed, which the shuttle carrying the weft passes through. The reed beats the weft thread close up to the preceding weft.
When a thread breaks, the dropper falls onto a castellated ratchet and the loom stops so that the weaver can find the broken thread and tie it together with a weaver's knot and restart the loom.
Every piece of cloth is checked and repaired (darned) until perfect. Burling is when the cloth is rubbed by hand to find knots and any other faults. The cloth is grease darned, then washed, scoured, dried and pressed. It is then clean darned On average a length of tartan cloth 60 ells long (59 inches wide) takes 8 hours. (1 ell = 45 inches.)
The cloth is now ready to be scoured and finished. As an example we'll us cashmere scarves.
The above unbelievably complex process involves considerable patience and skill typical of that required to achieve the traditional quality for which Lochcarron is noted around the world