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What Is Tartan?

Tartan is deeply sentimental to Scotland and is enriched in our history. At kilts for hire we work with tartan every single day and our experts have decades of knowledge.

Tartan can be seen all over the world and unites cultures together. Tartan origins trace back to all different parts of the globe. This guide will cover what is tartan and where did it come from? these pieces of woven cloth have centuries worth of history.

pictured of threaded weaving loom
Weaving loom used to create Tartan

What is Tartan?

Tartan definitively is a patterned cloth made up of woven horizontal and vertical bands of colour, woven to create a set repeat pattern. Tartan originates from woven wool.

loom weaving tartan
You can see the contrast between vertical and horizonal wefts.

Tartan is made by alternating woven threads of colour in a set pattern to create the plaid pattern we all recognise. Its woven through warp and weft threads at 90 degree angle. the pattern forms visible diagonal lines where the colour crosses with its warp/weft thread.

The weaving techniques of tartan create blocks of colour and a horizontal/vertical pattern.

The pattern of the tartan is called the sett, this referrers to the repeat of the pattern. commonly tartan is used to describe a pattern.

How old is Tartan and Where did it come from?

Its difficult to pinpoint exactly where tartan comes from as it was spotted in many different forms around the world at different time periods, even the world tartan has multiple backgrounds.

the oldest piece of tartan
Oldest piece of Scottish tartan found in Glen Affric Bog

There is very few remnants of original tartan, patterned cloth can be traced back to the modern Gaelic Scots from the highlands. Tartan is expected to be around 5000 years old.

Can be found Woven around 1000BC during the bronze age in Europe, in Asia around 2000BC & Egypt in 3000BC.

The oldest piece found in the UK was the Falkirk tartan from approximately 250 AD.

The original Falkirk tartan is kept in the national museum of Scotland, and holds a valuable place in history as one of the earliest Scottish pieces of tartan.

Tartan was worn and found outside of Scotland and woven for 1000s of years prior, why is it associated with Scotland?

As we know it , tartan is seen as the identity of Scotland , this is due to the rich history of tartan within Scotland during the time of the highlands , clans & rise in kilts.

Scots dressed in tartan kilts for highland dancing and highland games.
Examples of Scottish culture

Wearing tartan is typically seen as a connection to Scottish culture and tartan lives and breathes in Scotland more than anywhere else in the world.

Scottish culture and the highlands have over the years been highly mythicized and Romanised.

Scottish culture is so tied in with Scotland's identity its instantly recognisable.

Scotland embraces many traditions like highland dancing, highland games, burns supper, pipers & many more.

The main connections lay in the relationship between tartan and kilts, combined kilts were the national dress of Scotland and kilts themself have centuries of history. As we know it clans woven their own native tartans belonging to their clans and was seen as a method of identification during the 17th century.

 Scots in tartan kilts protesting
Scots protesting in their clan tartan kilts

To briefly explain the history, Scotland and the British government had years of back and forth about highland dress. What was part of clan highland culture was taken away during the dress act of 1746. King George II banned Scots from wearing tartan unless part of the highland registries or British army.

Scots would wear their tartan kilts with pride in protest and could face imprisonment if breaking the ban, the ban was eventually lifted 35 years later and kilts became mainstream again thanks to the visit of king George the IV after he visited wearing a kilt to Scotland.

*For more information on the origins of kilts, see our blog post here*

Types of Tartan

There is many different variations of tartan depending on a multitude of factors some to name a few are:

Tartan weights - Tartan comes in a variety of weights for different purposes , the most common ones being.

11oz Light weight cloth - Ideal for Ladies and Boys kilts & small tartan accessories.

13oz Medium weight cloth - Multipurpose.

16oz Heavy weight cloth - Best used for Adult kilts & large tartan accessories.

19/20 oz Regimental weight cloth- Very rarely woven but mostly for Military / older styles of kilt.

Flicking through tartan swatch book
We are proud to offer the largest tartan selection in Scotland

There will be crossovers in the uses for different weight of cloth, this is just a generic rule of thumb, at Kiltsforhire we only use the best lightweight jackets to keep you cool and heavyweight kilts to maintain good kilt hanging and structure.

Tartan is woven in bolts of cloth usually between 50-60m on a bolt.

Single width cloth refers to 80-90cm width and double width refers to 1.5m wide cloth.

Who can wear tartan?

In short … anyone. Scottish culture is embraced and shared all over the world and Scotland welcomes anyone to take part in our highland dress.

In recent years misinformation can circulate about who can and cant wear a tartan. People assume only Scottish people can wear tartan or only wear tartan from a specific clans which isn't true majority of the time.

all white tartan kilt outfit
Tartan is shared culture internationally

You can wear almost any tartan regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, family or anything. Some tartans are private owned like the royal balmoral tartan only designed to be worn by the royals. Most other private registered tartans are purely under the ownership of the designer meaning authorisation is needed to produce or wear the tartan.

There's thousands of family and clan tartans and the majority are more than free to use, some people will go on to design their own version of a family/ clan tartan or create one if not assigned to one.

We offer tartan design at Kiltsforhire and you can own your own unique tartan special to you for your occasion or corporation.

We hope this guide has been helpful in understanding the basics of Tartan and its significance in uniting cultures all across the world.

For any additional information on kilt hires , Tartan design or anything else feel free to give us a call at 0141 889 4879 or alternatively email us at

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