Highland dress is a fascinating subject and one of my favourites. In these four blog posts I will be explaining the different kinds of Highland dress worn by women, men and children, but for now, let’s have a quick look at how tartan was made.
Individual clan tartans were not officially in use until the late 17th century, although some clans preferred a certain “sett” of tartan to be their own.
The clan tartans we know and love nowadays were mostly based on the “ancient” tartans. Wilsons, a manufacture in the late 1700s began producing tartan to serve the need for Highland dress after the tartan ban was lifted in 1782. This morphed into the tartans we know today.
Colours have evolved over the years with chemical and commercial dyes overtaking naturally dyed fabric using plants and berries. This is why so many of the “ancient” tartans are much more faded and less bold than their modern counterparts, which from the practicality aspect is much more appealing, since brightly coloured tartan does not seem very sensible when Scots were hiding and fighting in a landscape made up of mainly browns, greys, greens and heather in the ages of clan feuds and Jacobite uprisings!
By the late 18th century through into the Victorian era, commercial tartan weaving boomed and the traditional techniques were sidelined in favour of quicker and cheaper methods.
Who made the ancient tartan?
Tartan and plaid (Pladier in Scots Gaelic) was usually made by wives for their husbands. The women would buy or harvest wool from their own sheep, dye and card the fleece, spin the wool into thread on a spinning wheel and then weave it on either hand looms or foot-operated ones. Depending on the size of their home, Scottish women may have done this outside. They would then sew the tartan fabric into plaid, kilts, trews (long, tight fitting trousers) and would make shirts out of linen.
Some women would use flax instead of wool, which was a far more complex process that included drying, soaking and stripping the flax plant before making it into cloth.
For the chiefs and aristocracy however, they would hire men and women to weave the tartan for them from the best quality materials or buy from professional weavers. Sometimes, depending on the family, the wives of the chiefs or lairds would make the tartan themselves or at least assisting in the making of it.
Often big groups of village women would gather together to make the tartan for their husbands, sons and themselves, drinking cups of tea and nursing babies and children while the dye set, gossiping about the latest village affairs. Mothers would pass the craft onto their daughters and granddaughters, some techniques would have been generations old.
In part two of the Highland Dress I will explain the components of women’s ancient Highland dress .