Tartan: The misunderstood icon of ‘Scottishness’

More resonances cling to tartan than perhaps any other fabric. It’s a stirring visual expression of both history and geography, as well as innovative design and self-expression. “There are many ways in which you can make a tartan distinctive and imbue it with personal or collective meaning,” says Rosie Waine, William Grant Foundation research fellow at National Museums Scotland. “Throughout its history, tartan has been used to express political viewpoints, as well as familial, regional and national identities. It has been viewed as tame and conservative by some; bold, brilliant and radical by others.” …

“The core of tartan design – the interweaving of colours in both warp and weft – has remained largely the same throughout history,” adds Rosie Waine. “However, the range of colours, fibres and finishes available has become far more varied with the progress of time and technological innovation.”

In Medieval times, for example, the colours of tartan fabric would have been significantly limited to the choice of native plants in each region of Scotland from which natural dyes could be extracted. By the 18th Century, however, global trade meant tartan makers could access more exotic colour sources. “Bright scarlets and blues, for example, were most often achieved by using natural dyestuffs imported from abroad, such as cochineal and indigo,” explains Waine.

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