The Unique History of Clan Tartans

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Tartan represents one of the most powerful and iconic exports of Scottish life and culture, and has been a mainstay in the world of fashion and design since Victorian times.

Whilst there are always anomalies to the rule, the Scottish Tartan Authority generally defines the design as “Woven bands or stripes of various colours and widths…the arrangement creates a recognisable square pattern or ‘sett’ which is repeated across the width and length of the material.”

The earliest known tartan can be dated back to 3000BC and became increasingly popular in Highland culture throughout the ages. Interestingly, original tartan designs had no names and no family/clan symbolism. Certain colours and patterns were preferred in certain areas, but this is more likely due to the fact that locally sourced plants, mosses and berries were used to dye the wool before local craftsmen created the weave by their own individual preferences.

The Clan Tartans we all know today that represent family pride and identification have evolved relatively recently. Highland soldiers adopted them as a part of their uniforms from the mid-18th century in defiance at a law aimed to outlaw them, with the majority of modern tartans thought to date from the early nineteenth century.

With the emergence of weaving and woollen mills as an industrial force in the Victorian era, the categorisation and organisation of clan tartans became more apparent.

Tartan History - Clan Gordon


Tartan in the Modern Day

Short of a hastily arranged Scottish holiday, you are most likely to have seen tartans in more or less constant use on the catwalks of London, Paris and New York, as well as for popular fashion and interior accessories such as scarves, wraps, and blankets.

Indeed, designers such as Vivienne Westwood have become renowned for their clever use of tartan fabrics in statement pieces, taking it to a wider audience than the traditional pleated kilt ever could. The Burberry check, despite not being an official tartan itself, is often confused with the Camel Thompson family tartan (a mistake, as a producer of Camel Thompson fabric ourselves, we are well aware of when we exhibit!)

Other famous ‘setts’ include Black Watch – one of the oldest tartans in the Scottish military; often favoured in Menswear items because of it’s subdued colours – and Royal Stewart – the official tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, i.e. the Royal House of Stewart.

At Abraham Moon we have been weaving tartans for many years, both as a part of our apparel fabric Heritage Collection and as bespoke designs for fashion houses, such as the Dolce & Gabbana piece pictured bottom left. We also create ruanas, stoles, scarves, and throws via our accessories brand Bronte by Moon (pictured centre and right).

For a related read, you can learn more about the Estate Tweeds and how they evolved from the shadow of traditional tartans, becoming a force in their own right.

Further reading is also available here—credit to Lily Bass for referencing this source.

Dolce & Gabbana Tartan woven by Abraham Moon Royal Stewart Ruana from Bronte by Moon A Selection of Tartan Throws from Bronte by Moon