Monday, 31 January 2011

Elizabeth Anne Kukurs on Tartans and more

Hi to All.

It is a new year and our Guild is busy preparing ideas and projects not only for the next 5 Counties Seminar, but also to promote our Guild for our new space in the new facility of Queen Elizabeth Park.

This last Friday of January, our Guild had our first meeting of 2011, and what a pleasant idea to invite Elizabeth-Anne to present the History of Tartans. Coming from a Scottish background, Elizabeth Anne was able to share her legacy through these wonderful pieces of textiles, full of history, colour and design.

The English word tartan is derived from the French tiretain. This French word is probably derived from the verb tirer in reference to woven cloth (as opposed to knitted cloth).[note 1] Today tartan usually refers to coloured patterns, though originally a tartan did not have to be made up of any pattern at all. As late as the 1830s tartan was sometimes described as "plain coloured ... without pattern".[5] Patterned cloth from the Gaelic speaking Scottish Highlands was called breacan, meaning many colours. Over time the meanings of tartan and breacan were combined to describe certain type of pattern on a certain type of cloth. The pattern of a tartan is called a sett. The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles.[5]

Today tartan is generally used to describe the pattern, not limited to textiles.[5] In America the term plaid is commonly used to describe tartan.[6] The word plaid, derived from the Scottish Gaelic plaide, meaning "blanket",[7] was first used of any rectangular garment, sometimes made up of tartan, particularly that which preceded the modern kilt (see: belted plaid). In time, plaid was used to describe blankets themselves.[6]

Tartan is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours. Tartans originated in woven wool, but now they are made in many other materials. Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. (Tartan is also known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder or a blanket.)

She started her talk by sharing some information about the first recorded samples of Tartan weaving dating back to 5 Centuries BC. This of course was related to the Soay sheep.
It is believed to be a survivor of the earliest domesticated sheep kept in northern Europe, and it remains physically similar to the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia.[1]

It is much smaller than modern domesticated sheep but hardier, and is extraordinarily agile, tending to take refuge amongst the cliffs when frightened. Soays may be solid black or brown, or more often blonde or dark brown with buffish-white underbelly and rump (known as lachdann in Scottish Gaelic, which is cognate to the Manx loaghtan); a few have white markings on the face.[2]

The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was due to the fact that tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, where of the tartans most to one's liking - in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.[1]

It is generally stated that the most popular tartans today are the Black Watch (also known as Old Campbell, Grant Hunting, Universal, Government) and Royal Stewart.[2] Today tartan is no longer limited to textiles but is used on non-woven mediums, such as paper, plastics, packaging, and wall coverings.[3]

Elizabeth-Anne shared some traditions of her own family, like relating the colour of the stripes of the tartan of her clan, which is called Mac Bean (written in Gaelic as MacBheathain)
Tartan have different names depending on the clans and origins.

The naming and registration of official clan tartans began on April 8, 1815, when the Highland Society of London (founded 1778) resolved that all the clan chiefs each "be respectfully solicited to furnish the Society with as Much of the Tartan of his Lordship's Clan as will serve to Show the Pattern and to Authenticate the Same by Attaching Thereunto a Card bearing the Impression of his Lordship's Arms." Many had no idea of what their tartan might be, but were keen to comply and to provide authentic signed and sealed samples. Alexander Macdonald, 2nd Baron Macdonald of Sleat was so far removed from his Highland heritage that he wrote to the Society: "Being really ignorant of what is exactly The Macdonald Tartan, I request you will have the goodness to exert every Means in your power to Obtain a perfectly genuine Pattern, Such as Will Warrant me in Authenticating it with my Arms."

Today tartan and "clan tartan" is an important part of a Scottish clan. Almost all Scottish clans have several tartans attributed to their name. Several clans have "official" tartans. Although it is possible for anyone to create a tartan and name it any name they wish, the only person with the authority to make a clan's tartan "official" is the chief.

Clan/Family Histories
- MacBean/MacBain/Bean

Origins and Early YearsMacBean
The name MacBain and variants has its origins in the Gaelic "betha" or "beatha" meaning "life" (similar to "uisge-beatha" the water of life, or whisky). It may have been, however, that it was from the Gaelic "bheathain" meaning "lively one". An early version of the name was Mac'ic'Beatha or Macbeth - who was later to gain fame when William Shakespeare wrote about him. Like Macbeth, many of those with this name came from Moray and the northern Grampian mountains.

When the powerful families of Moray were eventually made to acknowledge the authority of the Scottish monarch in the reign of Malcolm IV, many of them moved to other areas in the north. Legend has it that a MacBean settled in Petty, near Inverness in the 14th century and established his family under the protection of the clan Macintosh. The MacBeans also joined the Chattan confederation of clans, of which Macintosh was a major part.


Each thread in the warp crosses each thread in the weft at right angles. Where a thread in the warp crosses a thread of the same colour in the weft they produce a solid colour on the tartan, while a thread crossing another of a different colour produces an equal mixture of the two colours. Thus, a sett of two base colours produces three different colours including one mixture. The total number of colours, including mixtures, increases exponentially with the number of base colours so a sett of six base colours produces fifteen mixtures and a total of twenty-one different colours. This means that the more stripes and colours used, the more blurred and subdued the tartan's pattern becomes.[5][8]

The sequence of threads, known as the sett, starts at an edge and either repeats or reverses on what are called pivot points. In diagram A, the sett reverses at the first pivot, then repeats, then reverses at the next pivot, and will carry on in this manner horizontally. In diagram B, the sett reverses and repeats in the same way as the warp, and also carries on in the same manner vertically. The diagrams left illustrate the construction of a "symmetrical" tartan. However, on an "asymmetrical" tartan, the sett does not reverse at the pivots, it just repeats at the pivots. Also, some tartans (very few) do not have exactly the same sett for the warp and weft. This means the warp and weft will have alternate thread counts.

Diagram A, the warp
Diagram B, the weft.
Diagram C, the tartan. The combining of the warp and weft.


The shades of colour in tartan can be altered to produce variations of the same tartan. The resulting variations are termed: modern, ancient, and muted. These terms refer to colour only. Modern represents a tartan that is coloured using chemical dye, as opposed to natural dye. In the mid-19th century natural dyes began to be replaced by chemical dyes which were easier to use and were more economic for the booming tartan industry. Chemical dyes tended to produce a very strong, dark colour compared to the natural dyes. In modern colours, setts made up of blue, black and green tend be obscured. Ancient refers to a lighter shade of tartan. These shades are meant to represent the colours that would result from fabric aging over time. Muted refers to tartan which is shade between modern and ancient. This type of tartan is very modern, dating only from the early 1970s. This shade is said to be the closest match to the shades attained by natural dyes used before the mid-19th century.[10]

The idea that the various colours used in tartan have a specific meaning is purely a modern one. One such myth is that red tartans were "battle tartans", designed so they would not show blood. Many recently created tartans, such as Canadian provincial and territorial tartans and American state tartans, are designed with certain symbolic meaning for the colours used. For example the colour green sometimes symbolises prairies or forests, blue can symbolise lakes and rivers, and the colour yellow is sometimes used to symbolise various crops.[2]

Thank you Elizabeth Anne for this wonderful presentation.I would have loved to see more members in your presentation.
Of course this is not Woodstock or what so ever!

But it is important to be there and take advantage of what all of us have to share with the Guild. If this Guild is to grow as we would love to we must be integrated and willing to participate as actively as we can in order to have a wonderful Fibre Room at QEP soon to open in January 2012!

I am sure through this presentation many of us will have more inspiration and ideas for our project to come for the 5 Counties Seminar.

Start creating and have a wonderful year 2011!

Until next post.

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