As with all art mediums tartan design can reach an end result which may or may not appeal to the end viewer - there is no formula or 'correct' approach. A simple check may be more effective than a complex stripe sequence - yet some of the most effective tartans do have more complex sequences. A simple range of colours may be more effective than a large diverse range but again some effective tartans use a wide but closely co-ordinated range of colours. If you are serious about design it is worth looking at some existing registered tartans noting ones that appeal (and maybe those that are especially unappealing) and analysing aspects like the choice of width of adjacent stripes, whether a pattern exists within the sett itself, colours - close or complimentary, etc.
There are some 'tricks' or techniques that are used. Some argue that the essence of tartan design lies in recognising the combination of the mirroring of the stripe sequence combined with the horizontal and vertical replication - this resulting in a level of pattern form belying its basic components. Use of colour sequences in different widths of stripes can be used effectively. Highlighting of wide bands of dark color with narrow bands of light colour can emphasise a pattern that may otherwise be lost - this is sometimes referred to as the 'under-stripe' and the 'over-stripe'.
Although a tartan is essentially abstract i.e. the same pattern can be scaled from very small as perhaps used in a silk tie up to large as in a woollen blanket - scale still has to be taken into consideration. If, for example, the sett size is doubled a kilt would look very different from one made from the standard sett. Many registered tartans are in fact the 'same' tartan but at different scales.
Keith Lumsden, a tartan researcher of many years experience based in Scotland, has written a short guide to designing tartan
Designing tartan needs sympathy with its part played in Scottish culture which changes as modern needs and tastes dictate. Sufficient to say that the design should not confuse, trivialise or unnecessarily proliferate tartan.
The difference between a textile design and a tartan is that the latter carries a message be it, a name, place or event. Although there never has been direct symbolisation, colour can be used to increase the provenance of the message. Colours used in coats of arms, club colours, company liveries etc. should be selected. Not that they will mean a great deal to the casual outside observer but they will have a meaning to the owners.
Here are a few rules and ideas:
The majority of tartan designs are repeating patterns. This where the colour order/the design in a sett repeats across the cloth and are created by the same pattern being woven across (weft) as up and down (warp). The effect is that the pattern is the same which ever way up it is looked at.
Non repeating patterns which are those where the colour order goes back to the beginning at the end of the sett produce designs that have to be declared as to which way up they are in their used. In highland dress this is inconvenient. The same is true with designs that are of different warp and weft patterns. There are a few tartans that are like this but as a rule it is better to avoid these complications.
Make up you mind what is the function of the tartan. Is it for kilts, ties, ladies wear, etc....? As a rough guided sett size for ties would be from 2.5 – 3ins, ladies wear 4.5 – 5ins and kilts would be 6.5 – 7ins. If it is for multi uses then the sett size must be easily expanded or contracted.
Don't use more than six colours. Traditional mechanical looms used in highland dress only have six shuttles so using any more leads to expense. There are old designs with more colours than six but they were hand woven.
Don't use two similarly shaded colours next door to each other. It will hide the geometry in your design. e.g. navy blue next to black.
Don't have hang-ups about colour use such as 'blue and green should never be seen'. At least three quarters of the colour in a tartan is the result of the meld of any two of the colours. Separating blue and green to avoid a clash is impossible. Shade has a big influence on colour combinations. Experiment, experience or examining other designs is essential. Modern computer aided design programs provide useful assistance
Use the geometry which will make the proportions of the tartan neither too boxy or too check like.
The background can be used to give space and moves the design away from being boxy. This is particularly so when the proportion between the background colours is made different. For example, the point at which a green on red tartan becomes a red on green tartan is not a set point and depends on a number of factors other than the colour proportions in the background. The over check plays a part but with others. Again experiment.
As a rule the lines of colour in the over-check give the mood of the tartan. Thin lines make for severity as in a pinstriped suit, where as broader lines soften the mood.
Simplicity is usually the best policy in tartan design. Complicated patterns tend to drive the design to being a check.
If a tartan is to be used in tailoring then highly visible lines such as those in yellow and white should be kept to a minimum to avoid problems in matching the pattern at seams.
Always check your design to see that there is no confusion with other tartans. Keith Lumsden, Tartans Researcher, STWR Administrator (Scottish Tartans World Register)
(c)Keith Lumsden 2011