World of Sewing Fabric: Scottish Tartans

It’s a plaid, plaid world at Stitch–we have a terrific feature on plaid projects in the upcoming issue, available in September, and we’ve noticed plaid all over the fashion runways for fall, often in menswear-inspired styles. In Scotland, plaid is known as tartan; in the last few centuries, it’s become a tradition for clans and other entities to create exclusive plaid patterns, and several thousand are now registered with the Scottish Tartans Authority, a nonprofit dedicated to history, research, education, and preservation of tartans. The history of tartan is richly intertwined with the history of Scotland itself, and perhaps even beyond–the Tartan Authority describes the earliest known woven plaid textile as a fragment found with the Central Asian mummies of Urumchi.


Tartan plaids were traditionally woven in a sturdy wool to keep out the elements, naturally dyed in red, green, and blue and sewn into a kilt and wrap. As the centuries passed and chemical dyes were introduced, many more color options became available. A registered tartan has specific colors and patterns, but according to the Tartans Authority, variations are permitted:

In any particular traditional tartan, different weavers must use the same colours but can use different shades – a fact which contributes greatly to the aesthetic diversity of tartan and its great popularity. All weavers have their own distinctive colour palettes, so if looking to match a particular tartan, you can’t just order it by name from any weaver and assume that it will match what you have: you must identify which weaver produced it which is usually done by looking at woven samples in a tartan shop.

Modern fashion designers use plaid sewing fabric in everything from lingerie to evening gowns; tartans are woven in silk, cotton, and even synthetic blends, as well as in traditional wool. If you’d like to find out if your family, city, state, sports team, firefighters’ league, college or university, company, or other entity has a registered tartan, search here. I have no Scottish ancestry and can’t link my name to a tartan, but there is a tartan for my state of Colorado and for the Canadian province where I was born. There’s one for the Denver Broncos sports team and a very pretty blue-green one for New York City (above right). Within the basic design limits of a plaid pattern, the possibilities are infinite!

While it’s perfectly legal to wear any tartan you like, it is fun to locate one that connects to something in your life. If you’re unable to find an existing tartan,you can design your own and weave it or commission a weaver, or you can wear one of several popular universal tartans, like the traditional Black Watch or Braveheart Warrior patterns, or the Tartan of the Celts, at far left, designed by Ronnie Hek of Scotland. Or simply choose a tartan in colors that you love; the bright orange tartan for the continent of Australia, below left, was the winner of a design competition held by the Scottish Australian Heritage Council.


If you’d like to make an authentic Scottish kilt for a man in your life, well, there’s a pattern for that–try Folkwear Patterns #152 . And send us a picture of your tartan masterpiece!

Happy sewing!


Other sewing topics you may enjoy:


For Men, Sewing Fabric & Fabric Basics