of plaids and tartans

January 07, 2024  •  4 Comments

Perhaps it is because a blanket of grey skies has hung over us for more days than is normal in the sunny Land of Enchantment, leaving us feeling very Scottish.  Or it could be due to a text message asking about what would be an appropriate tartan to wear.  Or due to a recent gift of a wool muffler made of the official New Mexico tartan.  Regardless, today's blog delves into the colorful world of plaids and tartans.

Early woven clothing, rugs, and wall decorations share certain characteristics.  Historically, they were made of wool, and many still are.  Chimayo and Navajo weaving carry designs and colors that may be specific to certain areas, just as Scottish tartans identify a community.  And this from Christina Garton writing for the magazine Handwoven explains a lot.  "All tartans are plaid.  However not all plaids are tartan!  Both plaids and tartans are woven of stripes that meet at 90-degree angles. Tartans have an identical pattern of stripes running vertically and horizontally, resulting in overlapping square grids."  (Handwoven 18 October 2022).   But there is something else that make tartans unique.  Thinking about how many modern homes are built is helpful.  They have an upright structure, for instance of wooden 2x4 or 2x6 studs/uprights onto which dry wall or other siding is attached.  These provide the skeleton or frame of a house.  When it comes to weaving, the warp or wool strung on a frame or loom serves the same purpose as the 2x4s.  The  wool weft is a little like the dry wall or siding which is then applied to the warp in various colors and designs.  In Southwestern weaving, the warp skeleton then disappears within the body of the weft.  One can only see the warp at the top and bottom of the weaving.  That is why Rio Grande, Chimayo, and Navajo weaving and most modern weavings are called weft faced.  Tartans are made using what is called a "balanced weave" wherein both warp and weft are visible.  Below is a fine MacLean of Duart red muted tartan swatch. 

MacLean of Duart red mutedMacLean of Duart red muted  



A personal disclaimer.  I struggled with geometry in school, and weaving is filled with geometry.  So I will just add a couple of things that make tartans distinctive.  "The plaid of a tartan is called a sett.  The sett is made up of a series of woven threads which cross at right angles."  Jeff Ezell, Heraldry Crests. heraldryandcrests.com  "Tartan is recorded by counting the threads of each colour that appear in the sett. The thread count not only describes the width of the stripes on a sett, but also the colours used. For example, the thread count "K4 R24 K24 Y4" corresponds to 4 black threads, 24 redthreads, 24 black threads, 4 yellow threads. The first and last threads of the thread count are the pivot points."  I admit I have yet to wrap my head around that part, but for those of you who can and are interested, the link above will lead you to the really detailed and excellent posting by Jeff Ezell.  


In the mean time, visuals might help.  This is a muffler woven in Ireland, actually.  It is a Black Stewart tartan.  Looking at the warp ends (fringe), you can see the sett and how the weft is worked into the warp.  

  Black StewartBlack Stewart

Black Stewart color setsBlack Stewart color sets



Given the intensity of the red in this tartan, it is hard to believe it is also a MacLean of Duart, as is the tartan in the first photograph.  Frequently, tartans have multiple styles with different colors, including ancient, modern, muted, dress, and hunting (usually darker for camouflage purposes). 

MacLean of Duart redMacLean of Duart red



Here is yet another MacLean, with the same sett but the weaver has chosen to substitute a maroon or burgundy color yarn for the bright red.  

Maclean tieMaclean tie




The Black Watch tartan (a regimental tartan also worn by coachmen and servants in the late 1800s ) is comprised of black, dark green, and navy blue yarn.

Black Watch tartanBlack Watch tartan


One of the most frequently seen tartans is the Royal Stewart.  Shortbread lovers will recognize it from the boxes.

Royal StewartRoyal Stewart



Finally, a photograph of the New Mexico tartan, officially registered in 1996, with the colors of our state flag nicely included in its setts.

New Mexico TartanNew Mexico Tartan     


Thanks to Char and Robert for getting me rolling on this, and to Fred for the geometry lesson!


Starting out the New Year right were Victoria, Christine, Tim A. Minna, Gustavo, Jean & Sam, Marilyn G., Lisa S., M. Fred, Tomas, Catherine S., Steve, Rebecca, and Ingrid who wrote and commented this week!

until next Monday,


a passion for the image©


Dianne James(non-registered)
Those are all so beautiful. Thank you for the fascinating facts on the different Tartans and weaves.
This reads like a chess board! Tartans and chess? Check!
Steve Immel(non-registered)
It looks you had three reasons to teach us about plaids and tartans today. It's good to know that "All tartans are plaid. However not all plaids are tartans." The extent of my tartan knowledge is that they identify a community. It was instructive to compare the warp to 2x4s as the framework of a weaving and the weft as the drywall. I trust that a quiz will follow.

Lovely tartans, by the way.
Very interesting history of this beautiful garment.
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