When it comes to tartans there are so many to choose from. In heavy weight fabric alone there are over 2000 different tartans. This is not only due to the fact that there are so many clans, but also because there are so many variations of the same tartan. So, when you are looking for a tartan you may find that after dwindling down the list of the possible choices you have, there may still be 10 different variations to choose from! The MacDonald Clan has almost 25 different tartans associated with its’ name, which is quite rare. Today, I am going to focus on the five most common tartan variations that are Ancient, Modern, Weathered, Hunting, and Dress.
The Ancient Tartans use lighter and softer shades. With these softer shades the pattern of the tartan is more easily seen. According to the Tartans Authority, the ancient variation was more commonly used in the 1950s and 60s when compared to today. Greens and blues are more subdued, red appears more orange, and the dyes are those that look more like colours you would find in nature. The ancient variation is believed to be what tartan would have looked like when vegetable and animal dyes where used for producing tartan prior to 1860.
The Modern Tartans are bolder and darker in colour. The tartan itself is the same sett as the ancient, but the reds are bolder, blues appear navy, and greens more bottle green. The dyes for these colours would have been produced after 1860 when new chemical dyes were more available. Sometimes the blues and greens can be so dark that the pattern of the tartan can get lost. This is why many people either prefer the modern variation or the ancient variation. Those that like the distinctiveness of the tartan pattern tend to lean themselves towards the ancient colours, while those that do not like the loud pattern tend to like the modern colours more.
The Weathered Tartans use a colour palette that imitate tartans that have been exposed to intense rain, sun, and wind. Many people believe the weathered tartans look most like those from hundreds of years ago. Men would have worn their kilts day and night and used them to shield themselves from harsh weather conditions. Thus, the colours would have been faded, or weathered.
The Hunting Tartans were traditionally worn during hunting. The colours, are those you would most likely find in nature. Hunting tartans will almost always have more greens and browns in them than their ancient and modern counterparts. Some clans do not have a hunting variation as their modern or ancient tartan already has many green hues in it. For example MacLean of Duart Modern is a red tartan, so a hunting tartan would have been needed to blend in more with the greens of the woodlands.
The Dress Tartans are commonly associated with highland dance. They might be the most noticeable variation with the abundance of white that is used in the tartans. The inspiration for dress tartans goes back to eighteenth century women’s fashion. According to Matthew Newsome from Scottish Tartans it was typical at that time for women to wear a large wrap made from a white or cream based tartan. The modern concept of dress tartans reflects this fashion, and many dress tartans are simply versions of the standard clan tartan with a main color changed to white, or extra white added to the pattern.
When looking through your clan’s tartans, or any tartan, it is also important to understand that while the colour palette of tartan variations generally remains the same across all mills, there will almost always be a shade difference between the same tartan woven by two different mills. Bear this in mind especially if you are ever trying to match a new item to one previously. Even if it is from the same mill there is still about a 10% shade difference between two different batches of the same tartan.