A Brief History of the Tartan

Our Heritage Collection is a celebration of Scottish highlandwear heritage, tartans and the kiltmaking process.  Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be exploring the kiltmaking process. Starting with a brief history of tartan and next week, a look at what creating a handmade kilt entails!

Like all fabrics, wool was originally dyed by the local flowers and plants. For example, in the Outer Hebrides, it was common to use Alder Tree bark and dock root to create black dye. The difference between modern and traditional tartans is simple to identify – traditional tartans are muted, with natural colours and modern tartans tend to be far more vibrant.

The six stages of weaving tartan were:

  • Gathering the wool
  • Preparing the fibres – combing them into either soft or hard textures
  • Spinning (using a drop spindle)
  • Dying the wool
  • Weaving the wool
  • Waulking

The vertical stripes in tartan are warp and horizontal stripes are weft.

When weaving, each warp and weft must always meet at a right-angle. When the two meet and are combined, they create new colours but the original colours that don’t overlap stay the same. The sett (sequence of the threads) begins at the edge of the fabric and reverses on pivot points.

Once the cloth was woven, waulking began. The Waulking Women met at the home of the cloth owner after breakfast. The cloth was sewn together to create a continuous loop. It was then – though this is no longer undertaken – soaked in human urine, fual or graith. This was because amonia intensifies dye colours and removes oils.

Around a dozen women would pound the cloth against a board or trample it with their feet. The cloth was pulled towards them, beat on the board and then passed clockwise (anti-clockwise was considered to be bad luck!). Along with this process, the women sang. Depending on the work ahead of them, their songs varied in tempo but they were mostly improvised with a lead singer performing the verses and the rest joining in with choruses.

The waulking tradition has been adapted by Harris Tweed but otherwise, the tartan and tweed creation has been modernised with machinery in recent years.