Tweed & Tartan
By British law, Harris Tweed must be “hand-woven by islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist, and Barra in their homes, using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.”
For centuries, residents of these islands off the west coast of Scotland have been famed for their fine weaving. In 1846, Lady Dunmore brought Western Isles weaving to the attention of the British gentry in hopes of providing additional income for local craftspeople. Her scheme worked, and “Harris Tweed” became fashionable throughout Britain. In 1906, to safeguard against competitors, it became one of the first industries to use a trademark.
Tweed is still woven in “weaving sheds” on crofts (small farms) throughout the islands. However, weavers now rely on several large mills on Lewis to spin and dye the thread and set up the cloth’s warp on a beam. The prepared warps are then delivered to individual crofts to be woven. After being woven, the tweed is collected and returned to the factory, where it is finished and shipped to customers throughout the world.
The word tartan itself probably derives from the French word tiretaine. Plaid or “tartan” fabrics have been identified with Celtic peoples since prehistoric times. In the 16th century, when Scotland was linked to France, Tiretaine was a woolen-linen blend and the word referred to the fabric itself, and not to any particular type of design. In time the term came to be applied specifically to the pattern of interlocking stripes known in America as “plaid.”
The word “plaid” itself comes from the Scots word plaide which referred to the large wrap garment worn in the Highlands from the late 16th–18th century made of tartan cloth. The earliest evidence we have of a tartan being worn in Scotland is the Falkirk Tartan in a pattern known as “Shepherd Plaid”, a simple dark and light check estimated to be from around 325 AD.
Writers from Roman times to the Renaissance mentioned that Highland Scots wore striped cloaks of many colors. Tartan was originally woven on home looms, and the wool used was dyed using local plants. The introduction of commercially traded dyes around 1600 greatly expanded the range and intensity of the colors used in tartan.
Tartan was worn originally in Scotland as a fashionable type of dress. All tartan was hand woven and each weaver would create unique and attractive designs based on the colors of dyes available. Certain colors and pattern schemes may have been more common in certain regions.
By the 16th century, tartan had become characteristic of Highland Dress. Gaelic-speaking Highlanders wore tartan of bright and flashy shades to show off wealth and status. They also favoured darker, natural tones that would emulate the shades of the bracken and the heather so that they might wrap themselves in their plaids and be hidden.
The English government took a more active interest in the Highland and in 1707, the Act of Union took place. It succeeded in temporarily uniting the groups opposed to the Act; the tartan came into its own as a symbol of active nationalism and was seen by the ruling classes to be garb of extremism. It is also believed that this act spread the wearing of the tartan from the Highlands to the Lowlands (previously not known for wearing tartan).
After the uprising of 1715, the Government enforced stricter policies and independent companies were formed to police the lawlessness that developed. Their recruits were mostly Highlanders who enlisted and served in the private ranks; they became known as the Black Watch, in reference to the darkly colored tartans they wore. In 1740, they became a formal regiment, and the need arose to adopt a formal tartan. In the end, an entirely new tartan was developed and has been known as the “Black Watch” Tartan. It was the first documented tartan to be known by an official name and possesses the authenticity of a full pedigree.
By the time of the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th Century, tartan fashion had become truly outstanding. Surviving tartan from this period include yellows, purples, golds, greens, oranges, reds, blues, and any number of other bright colors, woven in ever more intricate patterns. Often more than one tartan would be worn at once. Meanwhile, in the Lowlands, tartan shawls (plaids) were worn favouring simpler, black and white designs.
When the massacre at Culloden left the Jacobites in ruin, tartan (along with kilts and bagpipes) was proscribed. In 1746, tartan cloth and kilts were banned by the British government, except for those worn by gentry, women, and soldiers serving in the British Army’s Highland Regiments.
The ban was lifted in 1782, and by the 1790s, a renewed interest in Highland culture and the victories of Highland Regiments in the Napoleonic Wars made tartan (and kilts) fashionable throughout Europe. Their success was assured in 1822 by King George IV, the first reigning British monarch to visit Scotland in 150 years, who wore a tartan kilt while in Edinburgh.
The first regular, standardized tartans were woven by William Wilson, woolen mill owner in Bannockburn in the 1780s. He could repeat the same pattern over and over again. At first he assigned these patterns numbers, but before long, names began to be associated with them. By giving them the name of a romantic clan, local city, or popular ruling family to a tartan, Wilson could increase his sales.
But the notion that each clan had its own identifying tartan fit in well with 19th century thought. Writers like Sir Walter Scott added to Scotland’s romantic appeal and soon tartan was all the rage in England as well. Everyone of Scottish descent wanted to know what “their” clan tartan was. Queen Victoria loved all things Scottish and insisted when visited by any Highland chief that he be wearing his clan tartan – even if he didn’t have one!
Today many Scottish clans and families are represented with a particular tartan – some 200 years old, some 2 years old. Tartan is as much a part of Scottish tradition as anything else. Today, there are more than 3,700 named tartans, and new ones are being designed almost daily. The introduction of tartan-designing software has inspired even amateurs to devise new patterns. Some of the more recent designs include Burberry, Smithsonian and Amnesty International tartans.