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Tartan 101

Learn the basics of Scottish Clan and Irish Tartan plaid designs.

Scottish Tartan Kilts, Irish Tartans

What is a Tartan?

A Tartan design is a pattern of intersecting stripes that run horizontally & vertically through a woven fabric - usually wool. This design makes a plaid pattern, and is the reason why it’s often referred to as “family plaid” in North America. Tartans are used to make kilts, skirts and other accessories.

Native to Scotland & Ireland, tartan designs are most often specific to a clan, family or district. Though its origins are shrouded in history, it is likely that the clan tartan we know today evolved from the district tartan.

Consider that the local weaver would produce a length of cloth and the residents of that area would all wear the same plaid. Since clans & families also tended to be regional, the tartan would then come to represent the family in that area.

"Tartan" is the proper term, but it sometimes called by these names:
Tartan Plaid Family Plaid Scottish Plaid Clan Colors
Clan Plaid Irish Plaid Tartan Colors Family Colors.

For an explanation of tartan varieties or colorways, scroll down.

What's your Tartan?

Scottish: If your ancestry is Scottish and your surname is not on the Scottish Tartan List, there is still a good chance that it may be a "sept" of another clan. There are two types of septs: a family that was related by blood or marriage to a clan; or a family that sought the protection of a clan. If there is no clan connection, the name may be associated with a District Tartan.

Some examples of Scottish surnames and their clans:

Clan / Tartan
Irish: If your family is from Ireland, one of the Irish County Tartans will most likely be appropriate, as there are only a handful of Irish Clan Tartans.

Tartan is an art form -- emotive and subjective.
It has even been described as a three-dimensional sculpture in wool.

District Tartans
Gordon Teall of Teallach & Philip D. Smith, Jr.

Tartan Varieties or Colorways

A Tartan may come in a variety of colorways. These basic tartan variations may also combine for more complex Tartans such as Stewart Dress Muted Tartan, or MacRae Hunting Ancient Tartan.

Swatch: Cameron of Erracht Modern Tartan

Modern: These are the bright, rich colors that most people associate with the Scottish Tartan--navy blue, scarlet, hunter green. They were woven after the development of aniline dyes in 1860, and are still the most popular today.

Example: Cameron of Erracht Modern

Tartan Swatch: Cameron of Erracht Ancient

Ancient (Old colors): These are the softer & lighter colors produced by the natural dyes made with vegetable, animal & mineral matter, that were in use before 1860. For instance, the navy and red in a Modern tartan would be a medium blue and orange, respectively, in Ancient colors. 

Example: Cameron of Erracht Ancient

Tartan Swatch: Cameron of Erracht Muted

Muted: Muted tartans are a recent development using softer shades of the Modern colors that still retain a rich tone. For instance, the navy of the Modern tartan is a dusty blue in the Muted tones, and the hunter green is a deep sage. They are quite elegant.

Example: Cameron of Erracht Muted

Tartan Swatch: Gordon Dress

Dress: Dress tartans were used for more formal occasions and are sometimes made by changing the background color of a clan tartan, usually to white. Dress tartans can also be red dominant or even yellow.

Example: Gordon Dress

Swatch: Fraser Hunting Ancient Tartan

Hunting: Hunting tartans were used for sport or everyday wear. Dark colors were predominant so the wearer would blend in with the environment. They typically use green & blue, sometimes brown, with small amounts of the brighter colors.

Example: Fraser Hunting Ancient

Tartan Swatch: MacNaughton Weathered

Weathered & Reproduction: Designed to look like the fabric has been left exposed to sun and rain for a long time. The colors are very faded.

Example: MacNaughton Weathered