Tartan, or plaid as American’s like to call it, is one of the world’s most instantly recognisable patterns. Inextricably linked to Scotland, the complicated colourful check immediately evokes visions of the Bonnie Prince Charlie, Braveheart and tins of shortbread biscuits but, since it’s appropriation by fashion, it also conjures up everything from punk and grunge rock to the genteel world of preppies. That’s quite a lot of work for a simple bit of woven fabric!
Despite its association with Scotland, historically tartan checks can be found as far afield as Central Europe and ancient China but it’s definitely the Highlands that have claimed it as their own. Originally tartan simply referred to the cloth which was vegetable dyed and could be plain or patterned and the first tartans as we now know them appeared in the late 17th century. At this time they varied due to region with local dyes and preferences determining the design. The notion of Clan tartans (checks designed and worn by particular families such as the Macleans, the Stewarts or the Mackenzies) in fact is a made-up tradition that only came about due to the Victorians romanticising Scottish culture in the 19th Century.
Despite it’s somewhat fusty traditional image, tartan has often been associated with rebellion too. It was banned for forty years following the Dress Act of 1746 in an attempt to control anti-English feeling north of the border and more recently was used defiantly by punk rockers in an anti-establishment way. For most of us though, it’s a way of adding a bit of colour and pattern to our wardrobes.