Tartan Terminology

by Matthew Newsome (c) 2008

The neophyte to the world of tartan is often confused by the various terms they encounter – and with good reason. The terms that tartan specialists often take for granted are not very self explanatory, and often times are counter-intuitive. That’s why it is good to revisit the issue of “tartan terminology” every so often. I have touched on this subject in various articles in the past, but thought it would be beneficial to address the subject directly.

To begin with, we must deal with the rather unfortunate terms “modern” and “ancient.” I say unfortunate because I encounter almost universal confusion as to what these two terms actually mean. And contrary to what anyone hearing them for the first time would assume, “modern” in this case does not mean new, and “ancient” does not mean old.

A better term for “modern” would actually be “standard,” because that is what it is – the standard colors of that particular tartan. “Ancient” refers to the same tartan produced in lighter tones, meant to reflect what that tartan might look like after years and years of fading. It is very much like the idea of stone washed blue jeans; purchased new, already looking old. The idea is that older, vegetable dyed tartans would not be as color-fast as modern chemical dyed cloth, and fading would happen more quickly over time.

This has led to a misconception that all old vegetable dyes tartans were very light in color. This is not true. Traditional vegetable dyes are quite capable of producing darker shades.

Because the lighter colors were meant to represent what an old, faded piece of cloth might look like, the manufacturers decided to call them “ancient,” and the standard colors came to be called “modern,” I suppose simply by default. Some woolen mills, such as Strathmore, choose to refer to the modern colors as “standard” and the ancient as “old colors.”

This idea of producing tartans in multiple shades dates back to the early-to-mid twentieth century, and it is not limited to “modern” and “ancient.” Another very common tartan appellation is “weathered.” This is an even more dramatic fading of the tartan, usually reducing the colors to browns and greys, and muted shades of red. These were supposedly inspired by the colors of tartan cloth unearthed after being buried in the soil for centuries. Sometimes this color scheme is referred to as “reproduction.”

These are not the only names one will encounter. Others include “muted” and “antique.” But the idea is the same – in all cases these terms refer to the same tartan produced in differing shades of the same general colors. by Matthew Newsome ©2008reproduction of the Christina Young arisaid, c. 1729, on display in the Scottish Tartans Museum.Other terms refer to different tartans entirely, however. The most common of these would be “hunting” and “dress.” Again, these names give rise to much confusion. The person hearing them for the first time would naturally assume that one went hunting in a “hunting tartan” and that “dress tartans” are for formal occasions. Such is not the case.

Generally speaking, a hunting tartan is simply a tartan that is based more in greens and blues, and often browns. Some clans, such as Armstrong or Campbell, do not have “hunting” tartans – their ordinary clan tartan is already in these colors. Other clans, such as MacLean or MacKinnon, have a red-based tartan as their primary one, and have hunting tartans which can be worn as an alternative. So the term “hunting” here refers to the fact that these tartans tend to be more muted in color, and has nothing to do with the actual usage of the tartan. And there is no reason at all why one could not wear a kilt in a hunting tartan to a formal occasion. What makes a Highland outfit formal or casual are the various accessories worn with the kilt – not the tartan of which the kilt is made.

Which leads to the subject of “dress” tartans. Again, generally speaking, a dress tartan is simply a tartan using white as one of the primary colors. There are exceptions to this rule. The Dress MacLeod tartan is a yellow tartan, for example. The inspiration for dress tartans goes back to eighteenth century women’s fashion. It was typical at that time for women to wear an earasaid (a large wrap) made from a white or cream based tartan. The modern concept of dress tartans hearkens back to this fashion, and many dress tartans are simply versions of the standard clan tartan with a main color changed to white, or extra white added to the pattern.

For this reason, some have suggested that dress tartans ought to be worn only be women. Certainly they are the most popular among women, but there is no real reason why a man could not wear a dress tartan if he so chose.

Dress tartans are also sometimes called “dancers’ tartans” because Highland dancers typically wear dress tartans in their kilts. However, the phrase “dancers’ tartan” generally implies that the design was created specifically for dancing, and these will frequently incorporate feminine colors not usually seen in clan tartans, such as teal and lavender. These are also frequently fashion tartans.

A fashion tartan is a tartan that is produced and worn without any authorization from a governing agent. By that I mean the chief in regard to clan tartans, or a CEO for a corporate tartan, or a local government for a district tartan. Tartans with the express approval of such an authority are “official” in the sense that they are authorized by the body they are meant to represent. If a tartan has no approval, it is termed a fashion tartan.

This is sometimes confused with the term “bumbee,” which is slag for an unnamed tartan pattern, as one might find in a general fabric outlet, or being used in general fashion. As in, “I like that flannel shirt you are wearing, what tartan is it made from?” “Oh, this? It’s just a bumbee tartan.”

Those are some of the terms that one encounters most frequently when discussing tartan. Hopefully this little lexicon may help to clear up some confusion among the ranks!