We will use the Fraser tartan as a fine example of a tartan which has all the variations that cause endless confusion. First of all to explain why there are so many tartans, over 2000 in fact. There are an awful lot of Scottish clans to start with and on top of this each clan clan can have many different tartans and names associated with it. Each tartan can then have further variations and the most common of these are Ancient, Modern, Weathered, Hunting, and Dress.
Before 1860 fabrics were coloured using animal and vegetable dyes. This produced the softer colours typical of the Ancient tartans, mossy greens and sky blues, a more orangey red and some would say showing off the pattern to much greater effect as as the contrasts are much brighter than the Modern tartans. The pattern or sett remains the same across all variations of a single tartan, and only the shades or tones vary. If you ever have a chance to visit a mill weaving tartan you will be astounded by all the cones of yarn and threads running everywhere and the complexity of setting up the loom.
Just to complicate things a little further the sett size, ie the dimensions of the full pattern repeat, will vary across different fabric weights. For example the super lightweight 8oz cloth has a much smaller pattern repeat usually around 8cm, whereas the 10oz cloth is more likely to be around 15cm. The heavier the fabric the larger the sett becomes with the 16oz wool fabric having an even larger repeat ensuring it shows up beautifully on a garment such as a kilt. Or your sofa!
Post 1860 chemical dyes replaced the natural animal and vegetable dyes and the Modern Tartans were born with their stronger and bolder colours. The soft greens and blues become bottle green and navy blue, reds are scarlet. The Modern tartans such as the Black Watch Modern can be much more subtle as the colours are not such striking contrasts. Unless of course you choose the Barclay Dress Modern and combine black and bright yellow! We find it really interesting when we look at which tartans are favourites in the different countries. The US do love a brighter Ancient tartan, Germany love a more subdued Weathered one, whereas the French and Italians prefer Modern colours and traditional scarlet reds and navy blues. The great thing is that there is a tartan for every personality, bold and brash Stewart Royal, shy and retiring Douglas Grey, sophisticated Black Watch or fun Bruce of Kinnaird Ancient. Which one will you be?
As you are unlikely to be running around the Highlands of Scotland in your kilt all winter, to understand the Weathered Tartans think about taking that bold tartan and hanging it out on the washing line for a year. Subjected to wind, rain and sunshine the remaining colours are I believe some of the most beautiful faded tones, olive greens and browns, very light blues with reds that are more pink than red. A great example of the lovely red shades you find in a Weathered tartan would be the MacLean of Duart Weathered. Some mills refer to the Weathered tartans are Muted. It does seem that we are out to confuse you doesn’t it?
The Hunting Tartans are the camouflage tartans and some clans don’t have these variations because they are already predominantly green or brown and don’t need amendment to blend in with nature’s colours. The Black Watch or Gunn tartans are examples of these, whereas a tartan such as the Fraser is predominantly red and would not provide much cover for men out hunting.
Finally the Dress Tartans were designed as the name suggests for celebrations and highland dance. The sett or pattern of the tartan remains the same and the main colour is changed to white, or extra white is added to the pattern to give it a brighter, more “fancy” appearance. The Scots do like to bend the rules and occasionally instead of white thread, yellow is used and this is where the rather wild MacLeod Dress Modern and Barclay Dress Modern came from.
And there you have it, tartan terminology explained. One thing to remember if you are ordering your tartan to match an existing kilt or accessory is that although the sett and colours are the same, there can be a slight difference in colour from one mill to the next. This is purely down to yarn dying so if you need an exact match we suggest you order a swatch to double check. If the above has only confused you further please do not hesitate to contact us via email, Livechat or good old telephone.