The ubiquitous tartan is everywhere. More resonances cling to tartan than perhaps any other fabric. It’s a stirring visual expression of both history and geography, as well as of innovative design and self-expression.
Throughout its history, tartan has been used to express political viewpoints, as well as familial, regional and national identities. It has been viewed as traditional and conservative by some, and bold, brilliant and radical by others.
It is amazing to see the world reach of tartan, not only spread by itinerant Scots men and women, but in the number of countries where girls’ school uniforms have tartan skirts: I have seen them in Australia and New Zealand, which is perhaps understandable, but also in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Sierra Leone and Kenya, which is not so easily explained. I remember talking to a U.S. Navy officer in Puerto Rico, who had spent two tours at Faslane, the U.S. nuclear submarine base in Scotland. He said they had visited a local kilt-maker, who had created a U.S. Navy tartan for them. “The Scots will do anything to make money”, he added.
Today, in the 21st Century, new tartan designs are alive and well, as evidenced by the stream of new examples recorded each year at the Scottish Register of Tartans.
One new design is entitled “COP26 – A New Dawn”, a dazzling creation developed for the hugely important “Global Climate Change Summit” due to be staged in Glasgow this coming November. The green squares in the design each use 26 threads in the weaving process, which recognizes the conference name. This new tartan also includes re-used wool from the textile recycling centre of Prato in Tuscany, one of Scotland’s partners for the COP26 conference.
The core of tartan design, the interweaving of colours in both warp and weft, has remained largely the same throughout history. However, the range of colours, fibres and finishes has become far more varied with the progress of time and technological innovation.
In medieval times (a few years ago in Scotland – I couldn’t resist) the colours of tartan fabric would have been significantly limited to the choice of native plants in each region of Scotland from which natural dyes could be extracted. By the 18th Century, however, global trade meant tartan makers could access more exotic colour sources.
Some contemporary tartans illustrate the ability of this classic Scottish fabric to reach far and wide in their reference to place and time. An “Obama Family tartan”, which was commissioned to mark the former U.S. President’s 2017 visit to Scotland, took design cues from colours associated with key places in his life such as Chicago, Hawaii and Kenya.
A powerful 2016 tartan was commissioned by the Russian Consul General in Edinburgh to honour those who sailed in the Russian Arctic convoys of World War Two. The “Russian Arctic Convoy tartan” encapsulates the essential colours remembered by convoy veterans. Colours of dread, death and destruction, but colours too of bravery, hope and survival. The colour white brings a multitude of memories – ice floes, wind-whipped wave-tops, snow and ice-encrusted superstructures. Grey is for the sea and the sky, for the Allied battleships and the ever-threatening enemy U-boats. Black is for line upon line of enemy bombers, while silver is the most chilling sight of all – the bubbles in the wake of an oncoming torpedo. Brightening the hopes of many thousands of those Arctic mariners, however was the red in the Red Ensign of the escorting Royal Naval vessels, and red, too, in the merchantmen’s own flag – the Red Duster – and in the Russian flag. (See this tartan in the blog picture)