When we think of tartan we think of Scotland. The distinctive checked woven cloth, made into kilts, blankets and scarves, fills our eyes with color and choice when we wander down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
But why are there so many different patterns? Is it just aesthetic or does it have a deeper meaning?
The wearing of tartan began in the Scottish highlands and different regions wore different colors depending on the dyes available from their lands. Trouble brewed during the Jacobite revolts of the 17th century when the Highlanders were seen to side with the deposed king James II. Suddenly, wearing tartan was seen as a political statement. In 1746, the Dress Act actually banned the wearing of tartan except by the British Army’s highland regiments. This changed in 1782, but it wasn’t until fashionable King George IV came to Edinburgh in 1822 and wore tartan that the real craze began.
By then tartans had begun to be associated with different clans or families and over 200 different designs had been registered. These days the most popular are the Black Watch (blue and green) and Royal Stewart (predominantly red with crossing stripes of blue, yellow, green and white).
Unless you have roots in a particular Highland clan, buying tartan is just a matter of personal taste. If you do have family connections in Scotland, there are plenty of tartan sellers who will help you trace your ancestry and which tartan you should be wearing for your clan.
One of the best places to start is the Edinburgh Old Town Weaving Co (555 Castlehill) next to Edinburgh Castle. Here you can actually watch tartan being woven in the mill and get to try on a huge variety of different tartans. The folks here will trace any ancestry that might help you decide which one to choose.
If you can’t see yourself as a kilt wearer, then consider buying a sash – these are traditionally worn over the shoulder and clipped or pinned and come in different shapes and sizes to suit different heights and draping styles. But if you’re not off to a Scottish country dance, then these sashes can be worn as a scarf or a shawl. Traditionally tartans are made in wool but you can also buy tartan in poly-cotton which is cheaper, and tartan scarves or sashes in silk.