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What is Tartan?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2016
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Tartan is a fabric which is woven with an assortment of stripes in varying widths and colors set at right angles to each other. In some parts of the world, the pattern is called “plaid.” The distinctive checked pattern of tartan is closely associated with Scotland, which has been weaving tartan for centuries. Most cultures actually demonstrate a history of weaving textiles with checked patterns, since they are relatively easy to weave and also quite striking.

The word comes from a Latin word, tyrius, for “cloth.” A tartan can be woven with any textile, although wool is common since it takes dye well and also insulates the body in the cold regions of the world where tartan is popular. Wool can also be woven in varying thicknesses, allowing people to wear more lightweight wool tartans in warmer weather. Tartan can also be made from linen, cotton, or silk. Tartan is usually worn with neutral colors, since the bold blocks in the color in the pattern have a potential for clashing.

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In the United Kingdom, “plaid” is commonly used to describe a scarf, throw, or blanket. It comes from a Gaelic word, plaide, which means “blanket.” In others areas of the world, plaid is a generic word for the tartan pattern. In many of these regions, a “tartan” is associated specifically with Scottish clans, while plaid is an all-encompassing name for any type of checked textile. This can lead to some confusion, but the meaning intended is usually clear from context.

The association of specific tartans with particular clans began formally in the 1800s. Originally, each region of Scotland had a regionally specific tartan pattern. The clans which dominated each region slowly adopted these tartans to represent their specific family and region, and in 1815, registration of individual clan tartans was initiated. Tartan also became a symbol of Scottish heritage and pride, and continues to be associated with Scottish culture.

Many sewing stores sell tartan fabrics for sewing and crafts. Clothing made from a tartan pattern is also readily available in many stores, in the form of skirts, jackets, pajamas, and everything in between. People with Scottish heritage who want to celebrate it sometimes research their genealogy to determine whether or not they have a clan tartan, or which tartan would have been worn in their area. Research of a tartan can sometimes reveal an interesting and colorful history, along with a family coat of arms.

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PinkLady4
Post 13

Back in junior high school, I had an authentic tartan kilt. I bought it at a Scottish import shop in our town.

It really was a cute tartan and I wore it all the time. Oh, by the way, I am a female. I know men still wear them in Great Britain, but the only place I have seen men wear them in the U.S. is in a bagpipe band.

My heritage is Scottish and I think it's really neat that the extended families there ended up choosing a tartan to represent and bond them together.

lovealot
Post 12

Part of my family heritage is Scottish. When my aunt went to Scotland, she found a tartan store that sold many of the clan tartans. She bought a few items with our family pattern. She also found out some interesting family history.

My dad was given a plaid tie. He has since died, but I still have his tartan tie.

I don't really like my family's tartan. It's an orange and green plaid. I don't think I would ever purchase anything in this plaid. Oh well, you can't choose your family tartan just like you can't choose your family!

starrynight
Post 11

@indemnifyme - Not all tartan patterns are associated with specific clans! I think some of them are just regular patterns.

Whenever I see red tartan I always think of Sex and the City. There was one particularly memorable episode where Charlotte and her husband go to a gathering of her husbands Scottish clan. She has a dress specially made in their tartan, and her husband accidentally rips it!

indemnifyme
Post 10

I have a set of tartan flannel sheets that I just love to use in the winter. The plaid pattern is made up of green and white set against a navy blue background. I think it even looks comfortable!

Flannel sheets are the best thing to snuggle up in on a cold night, and I think the plaid pattern just makes them even better. I think the sheets even look kind of comfortable!I don't know if that particular plaid has any significance to a Scottish clan though.

amysamp
Post 9

@geekish - That is a good question. I have not heard of anything specifically that reminds me of the function in culture and identity quite like tartan kilts of Scotland.

But I have heard of clothing that distinguishes tribes which I am sure could be much like or maybe even exactly like a Scottish clan as far as the close genetic ties, depending of course on how large the tribe was.

For example, it has been said that certain Native American tribes had a particular style to show the tribe they belonged to.

geekish
Post 8

@speechie - Personally I would not think so about the sex appeal of the kilt made of tartan or any other material for that matter. First the skirts are rather long from what I have seen, and they were tall socks with them.

I will stick to men in sharp suits as sexy, as I think that because a suit is well tailored it shows off the men’s broad shoulders and shape better than anything else. But I can also find jeans and a t-shirt quite nice as well.

But I digress. Where did the tartan idea come from? Did another culture use a type of clothing to identify who they were related to or did Scotland just feel the need to distinguish their clan secondary to some part of their culture?

Speechie
Post 7

@wander - I agree with you, the tartan due to the schoolgirl uniforms has developed a certain type of sexiness. The character that I think of in a schoolgirl uniform that made it "sexy" was Brittany Spears in one of her music videos.

Now I wonder if when kilts that were made of Scottish tartan were the thing to wear in that country, if they were ever a sign of sexiness for men - if women went around ogling the men in their sexy kilts?

I personally have yet to see a man in a kilt, although I have heard that in some traditional weddings men and their groomsmen will wear their kilt in the tartan of their family, but like I mentioned, I sadly have not been privy to such a sight thus my men in skirts sightings have just been cross-dressers.

OeKc05
Post 6

I love wearing tartan scarves with solid color tops. They add instant pizzazz to an outfit while keeping me warm.

I have several different colors of plaid scarves. My favorite is white, black, and hot pink. I also have one that is brown, red, and black that I wear mostly during the fall. These two scarves are made of a somewhat silky material, so they are more about looks than insulation, although any extra material does keep me a little warmer.

My favorite winter tartan scarf is made of thick wool and is blue, white, and gray. I like to wear it when it’s snowing outside. It is very insulating, and the colors remind me of snowflakes.

cloudel
Post 5

My boyfriend wore a tartan kilt as part of his Halloween costume last year. He went to the party as a Scottish man from long ago.

The kilt is green, purple, and brown plaid. It wraps around his waist and buckles in place. Luckily, the party was indoors, because he told me that he could feel a draft like never before in that kilt.

He got the kilt from an antique store, and it is supposed to be a genuine article. It even had a small crest embroidered in one corner so as not to take away from or overpower the plaid pattern.

Perdido
Post 4

I have a tartan skirt that I absolutely love to wear with tall black boots in the fall. It is red and black plaid and made of wool, so it keeps me warm on chilly mornings.

It goes great with a snug black sweater. It is long enough that I can wear it to class without causing a stir, but it is short enough to be fashionable.

I have been accused of wearing a kilt by people who don’t know the difference. A kilt has pleats in the rear and comes down to the knees. My tartan skirt rests two inches above the knees, and it has no pleats.

shell4life
Post 3

I never knew all those plaid flannel shirts I was wearing in the early nineties were actually tartan. I had never heard them referred to as anything other than “plaid.”

The one I wore the most was dark blue, light blue, and white tartan. It matched just about any pair of jeans in my collection. I even wore it with white jeans sometimes.

I loved the shirts because of the soft fabric and because the pattern made me think of camping out in the woods. I used to go camping with my family a lot as a child, and we would always wear plaid on these trips.

lonelygod
Post 2

I have a few relatives from Scotland and apparently our family is one of the ones that have their own tartan. While I don't ever dress in a kilt myself, I guess it is a great point of pride to be able to wear your own tartan to gatherings.

Sometimes my relatives will visit and drag me to one of the Scottish festivals that get held every year and I always see a shocking number of tartan designs. It is really amazing how one simple pattern can get so much use. From what I can tell the uniqueness of the tartan designs is what really sets your group apart.

wander
Post 1

Tartan is a fabric that always makes me think of the Catholic school girl uniforms that are so trendy in popular culture. While tartan was originally made to be somewhat formal, it has really become a symbol of sexiness when it's featured on a pleated skirt.

There are so many movies I can think of that use the school girl uniform to attract attention. The lead character from Suckerpunch is a good example. I am curious of how many people went to see Suckerpunch for the plot, or just to see a girl in a cute tartan school uniform beat up bad guys?

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